Cooper said L.A.City has dealt with more than 30 lawsuits for pranks, hazing, discrimination and harassment, which have cost the fire department more than $10 million.
“The outcome is no one wins,” Cooper said. “Even if you win legally, no one wins because the amount of harm done to the person and to the department is irreversible.”
Cooper said it takes a conscious effort to overcome the urge for pranks and hurtful comments. He said there are just some things he won’t even dare think about, let alone utter.
“I fight my mind to not even think about it, even though I might want to say it,” Cooper said. “There are some things you just can’t joke about even though it might be funny. Who knows what it is going to bring up.”
In L.A., the dog food incident and the myriad of other similar lawsuits polarized the community and scarred the reputation of the fire department. A good chief lost his job and there were precious dollars spent on settlements, all because of a few jokes.
“It ain’t no big thing y’all,” Cooper said mimicking naysayers. “It’s just part of our culture.”
That may be, but it can no longer be tolerated, he said.
“We’re no longer loved as we normally were and people don’t hold us in as high regard as they once did,” Cooper said.
Cooper said L.A. revamped its organization from top to bottom to make sure the hostile work environment never happens again. Complaints involving Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) issues, or police and law enforcement issues, are investigated by top management and done so thoroughly and quickly.
Management receives quarterly training not only in operational topics, but in leadership and human relations.
“It’s an ongoing process and conversation,” he said.
To keep the troops happy and engaged when it comes to EEO issues and to avoid hostile workplace practices, Cooper said all stakeholders need to have a place at the table and to be heard.
“It involves everyone in the station,” Cooper said. “Some say it’s a labor issue, come on in to the table. Some say this is a gender issue, come on to the table. Some say it’s a black issue, come to the table. White firefighters are saying ‘who represents us,’ they need to come to the table too… The idea is to get everybody’s finger on the nut so when we cut the deal, everybody is going to get something, even if it’s just a little piece. Then they’ll have some ownership.”