African American Florida Firefighters Find Nooses on Their Gear

The fire station at Duval and Jefferson streets downtown became the scene of a hate-crime investigation Friday morning when two black firefighters arrived at work to find nooses on their gear.

Firefighter Rufus Smith found a noose on his suit when he reported to work at 7 a.m. Smith immediately reported it to his superiors.

Smith said finding the noose made him angry and scared.

"We're afraid -- my life is on the line," Smith said. "I give my life to the citizens of Jacksonville any day, any second, all day for 17 years."

Roderick Laws, the only other black firefighter on this shift at the station, also found a noose draped on his gear.

"You never know when something is going to happen, and that's the point," Laws said. "You just want to make sure you work in a safe working environment, that's what I like to come for. I have kids to provide for and I've got to put food on the table, like everyone else."

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Hate Crimes Unit responded to station, along with evidence technicians, city officials and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mayor John Peyton issued a statement expressing his anger and disappointment at this "morally reprehensible" act.

"I also want to express my personal sympathy and concern to the fine firefighters who were victimized in this way," Peyton wrote. "This type of behavior does not represent our city or our fire department and it will not be tolerated."

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Peyton said the city's Human Rights Commission and General Counsel's office would also investigate the incident.

Both Smith and Laws told Channel 4's Melanie Lawson this is not the first time they've felt threatened and mistreated on the job, and feel that a racial problems stretch deep into the fire department.

In 2002, Smith filed a lawsuit with a U.S. district court claiming black firefighters have a tougher time getting promoted than whites. Within the past year, Laws filed a complaint of unsafe working conditions with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The head of the firefighters union and the current chief of Jacksonville Fire-Rescue declined to comment on the incident, but former Fire Chief Ray Alfred, now in private business, said he was shocked it.

Alfred admitted that race was a issue while he was fire chief -- from 1995 to 2003 -- but said that what's important now is how the city reacts to it.

"I think we need to find those individuals ... and prosecute them to the letter of the law," Alfred said.

Prosecutors told Channel 4 that while the act itself was likely a misdemeanor crime, if it was considered a hate crime, by Florida statute, the person would receive an additional five-year sentence.

"We have received several complaints from employees of the fire department," said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "That's one reason why we have started a dialog with the fire department and with the mayor's office."

Laws' stepfather, J.B. Williams, waited with others outside the fire station Friday morning for information about what happened.

"Sure, I'd like to see change," said Laws' stepfather, J.B. Williams. "I'd like to see where a person can come in to a job, do their job, go home and go to bed, or whatever, without being harassed."

Smith and Laws were placed on administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

Copyright 2006 by News4Jax.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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