DFD Cap. Harold Johnson Firing: "Bloody Pu$$y" Remarks v. Discrimination Claims

The firing of Denver Fire Department Captain Harold Johnson this week raises a slew of questions and concerns.

The termination letter issued to Johnson — see it below — includes thirteen different code-of-conduct violations, as well as vivid descriptions of allegedly problematic behavior.

In one instance, Johnson is said to have told his fire crew not to douse a dumpster blaze while he finished a personal phone call. In another, he's quoted at length using extremely explicit language, including the phrase, "I wouldn't fuck any bloody, nasty pussy."

Rather than keeping quiet about these claims, Johnson is publicly denouncing them even as he suggests that he's been targeted because of his race. And indeed, the lack of black firefighters in the DFD is a longstanding issue, having been the subject of a 2012 Westword post entitled "Denver Fire Department: Does It Have a Diversity Problem?"

And then there's the friendship between Johnson and Denver Manager of Safety Stephanie O'Malley, who are said to have gone on at least one date.

O'Malley sent Johnson a text message in October 2014 warning him of the investigation into his actions. The message, obtained by CBS4, which broke the news about Johnson in an intriguing report also shared here, reads: ”Hey...FYI some in the station are complaining to Eric [Eric Tade, Denver’s Fire Chief] about your back and be guarded with your tone-comments.”

Over the past decade-plus, the Denver Fire Department has 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.
Johnson was on the force through these periods, serving a total of 21 years prior to his sacking. Along the way, CBS4 reveals that he received "two verbal reprimands and one written reprimand. In 2010 he was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and a performance improvement plan for anger issues. In 2011, Johnson participated in mediation over an insubordination violation."

During an interview conducted as part of the investigation that led to his termination, Johnson addressed this issue head-on. "I don't want the angry-black-man thing every time I raise my voice, every time I say something," he stressed. However, he continued to speak up about racial issues, and he believes his comments ultimately led his superiors to find a way to give him the boot.

The termination letter is certainly filled with troubling stories. This one is about cell-phone use on the job:
You and your crew came across a dumpster fire on or around 24 August 2014 that was in semi-close proximity to an apartment complex. You responded to this dumpster fire in a residential neighborhood by telling your crew not to put water on it. Again, you were on a personal phone call and kept the crew idle until you finished your call. The fire was left smoldering while the crew returned to service. Your lack of leadership in responding to this dumpster fire not only was a violation of departmental policy; more importantly, it could have put an apartment complex at risk, as well as the safety of you and your crew.
And then there are instances of what the letter describes as "extremely offensive, lewd, lascivious and disrespectful communication to staff." Here's nother excerpt, which also dates to August 2014:
During lunchtime with three members of your crew, there was a conversation regarding females coming to see you at Station 29. In response to questions about these females coming by, you decided to respond in a sexually pornographic way by stating that:

I wouldn't touch any of your friends, I don't want any bloody pussy. If it bleeds, it's not for me. I don't ever want a girl to come to me and say you're going to be a dad, I don't care how hot she is, I'm not touching that gross, bloody pussy.... You can keep your nasty, bloody pussy, I've got it handled.... I wouldn't fuck any bloody, nasty pussy.
In a general response to CBS4 about language and terms he allegedly used to refer to staffers ("hon," "little black girl" and "little white boy" among them), Johnson cites "firehouse culture" that had been turned against him.

He also addressed implicit criticism that he was playing the race card. As he sees it, “that is the card that needs to be played and whether they say it’s playing it or not, it’s the truth. I think it has been the mission of the department to rid black men from positions of power. It's methodical and systematic.”

Thus far, Johnson hasn't launched legal action against the department as a result of his firing, but he says he's thinking about doing so.

Look below to see the CBS4 report, followed by the complete termination letter.

Harold Johnson Termination Letter.pdf

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts