Speaking publicly for the first time since the discovery of nooses on the gear of two black firefighters at a downtown fire station, the chief of Jacksonville Fire-Rescue said he was "extremely embarrassed" by the behavior and will terminate whoever is responsible.
"We are going to investigate thoroughly with the sheriff's office and the general counsel's office to look into it," Chief Richard Barrett said. "We will find the truth on it."
Firefighter Rufus Smith found a noose on his suit when he reported to work at 7 a.m. Friday at Fire Station No. 4 at the corner of Duval and Jefferson streets. A short time later, the only other black firefighter on the shift, Roderick Laws, found a noose draped over his gear.
They reported it to their superiors, and by midmorning, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Hate Crime Unit was investigating, as was the city's General Attorney's office and Human Rights Commission.
The head of the local chapter of the NAACP said Monday that the Justice Department, the FBI or some other federal agency needs to investigate the incident.
"They need to be notified, and they will be notified this week," NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin said.
Both Smith and Laws told Channel 4 on Friday this is not the first time they've felt threatened and mistreated on the job, and feel that racial problems stretch deep into the fire department.
"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."
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.
One of the men told Channel 4 the acts were retaliation for complaining about racial conditions in the workplace.
"There is a morale problem over at the fire department," Rumlin said. "Firefighters, both white and black, are afraid for their jobs, of coming forward."
It's a problem that the fire chief acknowledges.
"We do have some problems. We are addressing those problems," Barrett said. "We are working with the NAACP, as well as the black ministers. We are looking at forming a task group to look into the policy and procedures that are in place today, but we feel we have a good department."
Barrett said that with 1,300 employees in the department, "you are going to have some individuals who do not go by what they should be going by."
"We have had roughly over 100 disciplinary problems in the past two years. You will find some individuals who are not happy with the discipline we have handed out," Barrett said Monday on the morning show . "We have procedures in place where they can go before the Civil Service Board or a mediator to mediate those issues out."
Barrett told Channel 4 that he will dismiss whoever is found to be responsible for the nooses.
"It's pretty serious," he said. "It's very serious."
Smith and Laws were placed on administrative leave for their own protection while the incident is investigated.
"I talked to both firefighters over the weekend that were involved in the incident," Barrett said. "They are eager to get back to work. We will protect them and look after them, as well as all the other firefighters."
- February 20, 2006: Nooses Found At Downtown Fire Station
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