Ex-Denver Fire Captain Harold Johnson Accuses Department of Racism and More

Former Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson during an interview with CBS4. Additional images, a video and more below.
Former Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson during an interview with CBS4. Additional images, a video and more below.

Yesterday, we told you about the firing of Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson, who allegedly committed thirteen code-of-conduct violations. A termination letter on view below includes accounts of him ordering firefighters not to douse a dumpster fire near an apartment while he conducted a personal cell-phone conversation and using extraordinarily profane language on the job, including a riff about how he wouldn't  "fuck any bloody, nasty pussy."

After the publication of our post, we spoke with Johnson, who says the two incidents described above didn't take place and accuses the department of firing him because he spoke out about what he sees as discriminatory practices at the DFD.

"It's about institutional racism at the Denver Fire Department," Johnson says.

The Denver Fire Department wouldn't comment directly about Johnson's allegations, since he's already started the appeal process in regard to his sacking. However, the DFD issued a series of statements and graphics intended to counter Johnson's argument about a lack of diversity at the department.

An on-the-job portrait of Harold Johnson.
An on-the-job portrait of Harold Johnson.

Johnson feels he was targeted because of his outspokenness about racial issues by three members of the DFD power structure, who he refers to collectively as "the Hunt Club...because if they find out you're not going down the same road they want to go down, they'll hunt you down, and there'll be hell to pay." He accuses these highly placed, management-level staffers of actively recruiting employees to make up stories designed to damage him, include the "bloody pussy" remark, which he characterizes as "a complete and total lie," and the dumpster-fire story.

"Listen, here's something you need to know about firefighters," he maintains. "If one person on a rig says, 'Don't put out the fire,' the other firefighters would put it out anyway, and then they'd call the station and say, 'There's something wrong with Cap.' But they didn't do that. And you know why? Because it never happened."

According to Johnson, he has supporters within the department who are afraid to publicly offer him support for fear of retaliation. As for those who he believes fabricated tales about him that led to his firing, he looks forward to hearing their testimony before the Civil Service Commission, which will be considering his appeal; the process for scheduling a hearing is underway. "It's character assassination," he allows. "We're going to subpoena these people and ask, 'What did you really say? What really happened?'"

In the meantime, Johnson is talking about what he refers to as a "one-man-out, one-man-in" approach to the hiring of black firefighters. By his estimate, approximately fifty black firefighters were on duty with the Denver Fire Department circa the 1980s, with much of the hiring forced by legal challenges. And now? The DFD's own numbers show 49 black firefighters on the job, out of more than 900 total employees. He puts the number of black captains in the department at "six or seven" and says many of them are nearing retirement age; unless something changes (which he doesn't expect), he says there may be as few as two black captains within 24 months. He's even more negative about the odds of a black firefighter reaching the top levels at the department. In his words, "It'll be twenty years before you call a black man 'chief.""

Another portrait Harold Johnson provided to CBS4.
Another portrait Harold Johnson provided to CBS4.
Courtesy of Harold Johnson via CBS4

In response to these and other allegations by Johnson, the Denver Fire Department released this statement and graphics:

The Department of Safety and the Denver Fire Department are equal opportunity employers. Through diligent employment practices and recruitment efforts we remain committed to ensuring a safe, ethical, and diverse workplace for all. We continually strive to perpetuate a climate of respect for one another through trust, pride, diversity, integrity and training.

To ensure these values are understood and upheld, every employee of the Denver Fire Department within one year of being hired, goes through Professional Standards training taught most recently by Linda F. Willing of RealWorld Training and Consulting. Ms. Willing is a nationally respected, retired fire officer and an expert in the field of diversity and mental health wellness. The curriculum includes:

• Developing an understanding of diversity that acknowledges both its role as a resource and a challenge

• Providing skills and experience in basic conflict resolution practice – specifically as it involves diversity issues.

• Creating a common standard of professionalism as it relates to human resource issues, and underscores the important role of leadership in maintaining this professional standard.

Currently the Denver Fire Department employs 969 individuals. The ethnic, gender and rank based breakdowns are as follows.

Ex-Denver Fire Captain Harold Johnson Accuses Department of Racism and More
Denver Fire Department
Ex-Denver Fire Captain Harold Johnson Accuses Department of Racism and More
Denver Fire Department

As you can see, blacks represent just over 5 percent of personnel at the department, which remains 72 percent white. Moreover, 34 blacks have been appointed to a rank above firefighter, as opposed to 408 whites.

The DFD's statement continues:

The Denver Fire Department commitment to diversity is also represented in the area of recruitment. From testing period 2012 to testing period 2014 there was a 67% increase in the number of African Americans/Blacks who took the entry level exam. In 2016 we have already had 143 African Americans/Blacks take a mentoring class which guarantees a testing spot to anyone who attends the class. This would generate a 22% increase over the 67% increase experienced during the last testing cycle. We have also experienced growth by female and other minority populations.

The command staff of the Denver Fire Department has longstanding and successful relationships with the employee union group, Local 858, as well as Firefighters Incorporated for Racial Equality (F.I.R.E). The mission of F.I.R.E is to promote equality in the fire service through a diverse and inclusive employee group that strives to be an example of honesty and integrity to all members of the fire service.  

Such assertions don't satisfy Johnson, who claims that "one division chief is still using the word 'nigger' and there's never been any punishment against him. And yet they terminate me. They went on a witch hunt and they kept pressing until they got what they wanted."

Look below to see the original CBS4 report about Johnson's firing, followed by the termination letter.



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