Fire Chief Jay Behling suspended for 90 days without pay for using the N-word five times in front of employees of the all-white Fire Department.
SOUTH MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- The city's all-white Police and Fire Commission decided Wednesday to suspend Fire Chief Jay Behling 90 days without pay for using the N-word five times in front of employees of the all-white Fire Department.
The unanimous vote came shortly before 1 a.m., after 90 minutes of closed-door deliberations.
The deliberations followed four hours of witness testimony and comments by attorneys that began at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Behling, a 31-year member of the Fire Department who has been chief since December 2003, showed no emotion after the decision was announced and refused to comment afterward.
The firefighters union had asked that Behling be fired or demoted. Union president Glen McCoy, a lieutenant with the department, said the union would accept the decision but was disappointed.
"It hasn't fixed anything. We still have that shadow over our heads," he said, adding: "I think we have a lot of healing that we have to do."
During Tuesday night's hearing, an attorney for the firefighters union called nine witnesses to testify about the slurs and their potential impact on the department.
Behling attended the hearing with his lawyer but did not testify, and no witnesses were called on his behalf.
In urging the commission to remove Behling, union attorney John Kiel said: "His comments reflect on the entire community, they reflect on the entire Fire Department. They establish a culture that you cannot tolerate."
Behling's lawyer, Robert Mihelich, called Behling's slurs egregious and said Behling was ashamed. But he contended the union did not show that the epithets had harmed Fire Department morale, confidence about Behling in the community or relations with other emergency agencies.
"They have utterly failed to prove their case," Mihelich said, before the commission went into closed session.
Behling made the slurs about African-Americans at the firehouse on three days in February. The firefighters union confronted him about the statements March 1. The next day, the union filed a complaint with the city, which led Mayor Thomas Zepecki to suspend Behling for three days without pay.
On March 20, the union filed another complaint, this time with the Police and Fire Commission, asking that Behling be fired or demoted.
During the hearing Tuesday night at City Hall, three firefighters, who are members of the union, and a captain, who is not, testified about Behling's use of the N-word on Feb. 16, 20 and 23. Behling used the word in reference to a variety of African-Americans, according to the testimony: former Milwaukee Area Technical College President Darnell Cole, shortly after his firing; women at MATC's downtown Milwaukee campus; and people who come to Behling's church to receive food given to the poor.
All three firefighters testified that they were shocked and offended by Behling's slurs, saying they had never heard him use the word before.
One of them, Tad Beutin, said Behling told him "out of the blue" during a conversation: "These (N-word) keep coming to my church trying to get a free meal."
Beutin and the captain, Joseph Knitter, who is second-in-command of the department, also testified that they worried that Behling, given his use of the slurs, could not fairly enforce the city's anti-harassment policy.
Knitter said Behling had referred to female African-Americans at MATC's downtown campus as "(N-word) broads."
Two African-Americans were among more than 75 people who attended the hearing. Both testified for the union.
South Milwaukee resident Michael Knox testified about a recent fire near his home and what he had heard about Behling's slurs.
"What if this was my house?" Knox said he thought at the time. "My thing was, would I get that same level of protection or service?"
Knox had said in an interview before the hearing that Behling should be fired. "If they don't relieve this man of his position . . . that's just condoning it," he said.
The other African-American who testified, Milwaukee firefighters union President Bobbie Webber, said supervisors in the Milwaukee Fire Department who have made racist statements have been fired.
Roughly half the audience showed support for Behling by wearing stickers that said, "We support Jay." One of them, South Milwaukee resident Tara Withington, said before the hearing that she has known Behling for 25 years and he should remain as chief.
"He made a mistake. He owned up to it. He accepted his suspension. He apologized," she said.
In an interview Monday, Mihelich had accused the union of having "an ax to grind" in seeking to have Behling fired or demoted. He said the union wants the chief out because of a dispute it has with the city over staffing.
The union's lawyer, Kiel, denied the accusation. He said the union filed the charges with the Police and Fire Commission because the city did no investigation of Behling's slurs before the three-day suspension was issued.
In the formal charges, the union contends that the city has lost confidence in Behling and that he will be unable to "effectively represent" the Fire Department in dealings with other emergency services agencies in surrounding communities.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service