Male Firefighters Used Porn to Harass Female Co-Worker? Denver Settles Case

An image used to illustrate a complaint against the Denver Fire Department filed by Camilla VonBurkhardt. Additional images and more below.
An image used to illustrate a complaint against the Denver Fire Department filed by Camilla VonBurkhardt. Additional images and more below.
Courtesy of Mari Newman

In the age of Internet porn, when extremely explicit images and videos are just a click away, physical magazines such as Playboy seem almost old-fashioned.

But in the case of the mags seen in photos used to illustrate a complaint filed against the Denver Fire Department by former firefighter Camilla VonBurkhardt, the amount of skin exposed is secondary to what the images symbolize.

VonBurkhardt considers the magazines, which she says were left out for her to find, to have been part of a systematic campaign of sexual harassment waged against her because of her gender.

And while Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade (who was stabbed in a bizarre incident earlier this year) hasn't acknowledged that the firefighters involved did anything illegal, the City of Denver has agreed to a $75,000 settlement with VonBurkhardt to make the whole matter go away.

This isn't the first recent discrimination-related charge leveled at the DFD — and while the ones that have gotten the most attention pivoted on race, a recent firing involved charges of pornographic language on the job.

Former Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson.
Former Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson.

As we've reported, the Denver Fire Department has long taken criticism for its lack of black hires. A 2007 item from the late Rocky Mountain News points out that the hiring of two black recruits that May broke a "dry spell" of nearly seven years.

Five years later, when our Sam Levin reported about the DFD diversity issue, the situation was still the subject of controversy. Levin's post begins like so:

Out of 32 assistant chiefs currently working in the Denver Fire Department, one is black, four are Hispanic and there are no females. Of 62 captains below them, six are black, and three of those are eligible to retire in coming years. The consequence of these numbers according to some members? As individuals move up in the ranks, the department is on track to have a striking lack of diversity in its top leadership.

One white official has labeled this problem "institutional racism" in an internal letter — though the chief of the department maintains that he and the city are committed to diversity in recruitment and promotions.

The issue returned to the fore this past fall, after the firing of Captain Harold Johnson, who, among other things, was accused of using sexually insensitive terminology on the job. One rant was said to have dealt with "your nasty, bloody pussy."

Johnson denied the allegations and accused the DFD of "institutional racism" in a Westword interview.

Male Firefighters Used Porn to Harass Female Co-Worker? Denver Settles Case
Courtesy of Mari Newman

As for VonBurkhardt, the complaint she filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Division (see it below), maintains that "the DFD discriminated against me on the basis of my gender by subjecting me to a hostile work environment and pervasive and severe sexual harassment that is ingrained in DFD culture and tolerated and condoned at all levels."

Among the examples cited is language used by VonBurkhardt's superior, who the complaint accuses of hostility toward "all women, including our patients.... He often referred to female patients as 'whores' and 'cunts.' He called his fifteen-year-old son's girlfriend 'so smoking fucking hot.'"

Additionally, VonBurkhardt says similar language was used on the open radio, with one DFD engineer accused of referring to female patients as "fucking bitches."

And then there were the magazines.

Male Firefighters Used Porn to Harass Female Co-Worker? Denver Settles Case
Courtesy of Mari Newman

"My DFD superiors also left sexually explicit and pornographic materials in the bathrooms and in my cleaning closet," the document states, adding parenthetically, "I was responsible for cleaning the fire house."

The complaint goes well beyond these matters, detailing allegedly unjustified criticism of job performance that sent the message to VonBurkhardt that she wasn't wanted in the fire house.

She notes that over time, she began to consider the firehouse unsafe.

"The hostility I faced within the DFD because of my sex became so severe that I became more and more afraid to go to work," the document states. "I feared that if I encountered a dangerous situation, my superiors would not assist me."

Male Firefighters Used Porn to Harass Female Co-Worker? Denver Settles Case
Courtesy of Mari Newman

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In February 2015, after less than a year on the job, VonBurkhardt resigned from the fire department.

Her resignation letter is also shared here.

An excerpt reads:

The Denver Fire Department culture is extremely archaic and ignorant to the fact that females, from all backgrounds, are very capable of meeting the demands of this profession. I have been singled-out, discriminated against, ridiculed, humiliated and subjected to numerous inappropriate sexual comments towards my gender. The abuse and unprofessionalism I have been subjected to while employed on the Denver Fire Department was so overwhelming that early on in my career, I started to document each of these incidents by keeping an on-going journal. As a probationary Firefighter, I always felt if I had voiced my concerns, the attacks would become even more extreme in an effort to see me fail. However, although I refrained from making a formal complaint, I must note that many of these incidents were in the presence of a supervisor and/or a command officer who failed to intervene or protect me and often I was told in so many words that I better adapt and get used to it. The overall feeling of animosity towards females, from all levels of rank, is of extreme concern and I hope your office is able to address this deficiency.

Male Firefighters Used Porn to Harass Female Co-Worker? Denver Settles Case
Courtesy of Mari Newman

The Denver City Council has now authorized a $75,000 settlement with VonBurkhardt.

In reporting about the story, CBS4 reached out to Tade and Denver City Attorney Scott Martinez. Both declined to comment.

For its part, a DFD spokesperson is quoted as saying, “While the terms of the agreement are not confidential, the mediation that took place is confidential. Out of respect for our current and former employees, we must respectfully decline your request for an interview.... There are confidential reasons why the settlement was reached that we can’t discuss.”

Look below to see the CBS4 piece, followed by the complaint and resignation letter.



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