Fire lieutenant fired for slurs

Copyright 2002 Times Publishing Company
St. Petersburg Times...11/23/2002

MICHAEL SANDLER

The lieutenant's supervisor also faces a one-day suspension without pay for not reporting the incident.
LARGO - The city terminated a veteran fire lieutenant Friday and recommended that her supervisor receive a one-day suspension without pay, putting an end to a three-week investigation that cast a shadow of racism over the Fire Department.

Lt. Jeannine Horton, an 18-year veteran and Largo's highest ranking female firefighter, was fired for making comments while on duty in September that included "I hate n------.'

Chief Caroll Williams followed his decision by conveying a message to all employees that he will have a "zero tolerance" policy for all acts of racism and discrimination.

In a letter sent out to his staff, he stated: "The actions of Lieutenant Horton have substantially damaged the reputation of the entire department and brought discredit to all employees of the fire service."

Horton has admitted to using slurs during a conversation with two subordinates and a student at Station 41, where she was a supervisor. She told investigators she had joined a conversation where firefighters used derogatory terms such as "lazy blacks" and "towel heads."

When questioned by fire administrators this month, Horton contended she didn't believe the word she used to be a racial term and that she used it to describe "bad people from any race, nationality, sex or creed."

The deputy fire chief recommended she be demoted. But Pat Catalano, the city's personnel director who led the investigation, did not accept that and recommended termination.

"Regardless of the length of tenure or service provided, it is inconceivable that Lt. Horton did not know the "n" word is forbidden - in any context," Catalano wrote in her report Friday. "Even if she used another word, her intent was to express dislike for groups of human beings."

Catalano said it was Horton's duty to admonish the employees who used slurs, "rather than contributing to the conversation."

"Not only is it unbecoming of a Fire Rescue Lieutenant," Catalano wrote, "it is conduct unbecoming any representative of the City."

Williams agreed and notified Horton by phone.

Horton deferred all comments to her attorney, Robert McKee of Tampa. McKee did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.

Immediately after speaking with Horton, Williams sent out his departmentwide letter in which he confessed many sleepless nights contemplating his decision to "end the career of an 18-year veteran of this department."

But he stood firm on his position.

"As a command officer and supervisor, there is no excuse for her conduct in this matter," he wrote. "As this case clearly shows, I expect every member of this department to be held accountable and responsible for their actions and personal conduct."

Williams said Horton can request an appeal of his decision to the assistant city manager through the union.

Catalano also recommended that District Chief Jeff Day be suspended for a 24-hour shift without pay for failing to report the incident in September.

Several days after making her comments, which occurred either on Sept. 10 or Sept. 13, Horton notified Day of what she had said. Catalano said Horton also contacted the department's three African-American firefighters to explain what she had said.

Day interviewed Horton's subordinates and the student to see if they wanted to file a complaint. When they said no, he let Horton off with a warning and decided against reporting it.

Rumors spread and a formal investigation began on Oct. 24.

"It was his responsibility to communicate his actions and recommendations to his immediate supervisor or Fire Rescue Administration," Catalano wrote.

Day could not be reached for comment. He told the Times previously that, faced with a similar decision, he would report such an incident.

Prior to receiving discipline, he is required to have a predisciplinary hearing with the fire chief. Horton went through that procedure two weeks ago.

One area that remains uncertain is who else may have made racial slurs on the September day when firefighters began discussing a news report about terrorism.

Catalano interviewed 19 firefighters and a St. Petersburg College student who was performing EMT training at the station.

The firefighters who participated in the conversation were unable to identify any other firefighter who made racially charged comments, and none of them owned up to making them.

"I asked specifically if anyone could tell me they said it," Catalano said in an interview Friday. "One individual said he heard someone say it. It was confirmed someone else said "towel head.' They could identify themselves and Lt. Horton, but nobody could identify someone else in the conversation."

At Station 41, firefighters appeared dismayed when the chief's letter arrived Friday afternoon. But none wished to comment on his decision or on the mood of the department.

"We haven't all come together as a crew and been able to discuss it," said firefighter Bob Flores, while slipping out of his gear.

They will also need to digest Williams' letter. In addition to firing Horton and disciplining Day, he let all firefighters know the department will not tolerate acts of discrimination, racism or prejudice in the workplace. He clearly instructed command staff to take action should any further allegations surface.

"The firefighters live under a very strict rule of ethics and they are held accountable to live up to that," Williams said in an interview.

City Manager Steven Stanton said that goes for all city employees.

"I think it's a pretty significant message," Stanton said.

"Whenever you have to terminate an 18-year veteran, this represents a failure on the part of the city, the employee and the department. We obviously have a lot of work in front of us."