Sunday, May 20, 2018

Harassment and bullying by officers at Spokane Fire Station 2, city report finds

Posted By on Sun, May 20, 2018 at 5:28 PM

YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
  • Young Kwak Photo

A lieutenant in the Spokane Fire Department has accused several officers of bullying, sexual harassment and inappropriate interactions with probationary firefighters working in Station 2 on East North Foothills Drive.

The city released a redacted copy of the investigation into those allegations. Some are sustained, but the human resources investigator was unable to find enough evidence to support others.

Lt. David Bowers named Lt. Patrick Walsh, equipment operator Jeffrey Webb, Battalion Chief Donald Waller and Battalion Chief Darin Neiwert as the sources of the abuse in his complaint to the city's human resources department. Only Webb escaped the investigation with no sustained allegations against him.

A relative of Bowers had at one time worked as a probationary firefighter in Station 2 and, according to witnesses interviewed for the investigation, "struggled with performing consistently and was 'very nervous.'"

Here are the biggest takeaways from the 40-page report:
  • Allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment were sustained against some, but not all of the officers.
  • Allegations of retaliation and inequitable or unduly harsh evaluations of probationary employees were not sustained.
  • Witnesses who worked in Fire Station 2 described the environment as "very hostile," "lots of hazing and disrespect towards the new guys" and "pretty toxic." One witness, who is unnamed in the report, said the officers would instruct probationary employees to do things one way and then scold them for following instructions.
  • One witness believed the working environment at Station 2 could improve, but did not experience inappropriate behavior himself. "My perspective is that there is a fine line between pushing someone to be better at their job versus defamation of their character and their basic rights as a human being," he said. "I do have specific examples [of disrespect], but I'm uncomfortable with where this goes. It's a hard thing to swallow. I'm not looking for anybody to be in trouble. I have witnessed certain things, and I feel that others should not be treated in that fashion."
  • Another witness told HR that while on duty, Lt. Walsh would point to women walking by and ask "would you f—k her?" When the witness refused to participate, the witness said Walsh questioned his sexual preferences and said "if you don't admit you would screw her, we are going to take you to training and make you throw ladders by yourself."
Walsh flatly denied the description, saying "That did not happen."

The HR investigator ultimately sustained the sexual harassment allegation against Walsh.
  • A deputy fire chief repeatedly told officers at Station 2 that they were treating probationary employees unfairly and were training them too much. In response, Battalion Chief Neiwert named his fantasy football team "Probie Killers." The HR investigator concluded that the name "would reasonably be interpreted by a probationary employee as intimidating and undermining a probationary employee's right to respect at work," a violation of the city's anti-bullying policy.
  • Multiple witness said Battalion Chief Waller was unfair in his evaluations.
  • The HR investigator wrote that Waller "became visibly agitated and defensive when discussing allegations concerning an extrication drill and attempted to normalize a demeaning nickname used toward a probationary employee." The investigator sustained the allegation of bullying and harassment against Waller.
  • Several years ago, Battalion Chief Waller said he interviewed two relatives of Lt. Bowers, but did not offer them a job. Bowers then aggressively confronted Waller at a union office and demanded to know "what [his relative] needs to go do get hired." Waller felt that was inappropriate.
  • One officer, whose name is redacted in the report, violated the city's bullying policy by repeatedly threatened probationary employees with job loss and referred to them as "numb nuts." In an interview with HR, the officer said: "I will have to admit that I used that term. I call my kids that. It's a term I got from the Marine Corps. From this point on, I will cease using that term."
  • Lt. Krouse once instructed a probationary firefighter to retrieve a ladder from a structure without SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus), though such equipment is required.
When asked, Krouse said: "I don't really have any recollection of that. I have never used phrases like [that] toward probationary employees. We may tease each other around the station, but nothing like that."

The HR investigator recommended that the city provide training for bullying and harassment for all Spokane Fire Department employees; the city should hire an independent consultant to lead training and engage in other steps to improve SFD's internal culture; and the city should periodically elicit feedback from probationary firefighters and make appropriate adjustments to training and the work environment.
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