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L.A. Fire Chief Steps Down Amid Race Scandal

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L.A. Fire Chief Steps Down Amid Race Scandal

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L.A. Fire Chief Steps Down Amid Race Scandal

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Los Angeles's embattled fire chief is stepping down. Chief William Bamattre's resignation comes amid allegations of racial discrimination, hazing and harassment in the department.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: Bamattre had planned to retire in 2008, but during an emotional press conference this afternoon, the chief said it was clear to him that he was becoming a liability to LA's fire department, an agency he was extremely proud of.

Chief WILLIAM BAMATTRE (LA Fire Department): However, I have always placed the interests of the department above my own personal interest. I have become the focus of the debate and that is to the detriment of the LAFD. I will not allow that to continue.

KAHN: That debate has been a very public one in weeks as the city's been consumed by the racially charged case of Tennie Pierce. Pierce, who is African American, said he was the victim of racial discrimination when white colleagues laced his spaghetti with dog food.

Firefighters said the incident was just a prank, part of firehouse culture. But shortly after Pierce settled with the city for $2.7 million, photos of the six foot five firefighter surfaced on a conservative talk show's Web site. Pierce was pictured participating in hazing fellow firefighters.

That prompted LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to veto the settlement. Supporters of Pierce unsuccessfully tried to rally city council members to overturn the veto. Mayor Villaraigosa says it's time for new leadership to come in and change the department's culture.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor, Los Angeles): We want a change agent, someone that will not tolerate discrimination. The idea that a woman, a black man, a Latino, anyone, a white person, whoever it is, should be discriminated against, should be subjected to a harassive environment is unacceptable.

KAHN: LA's fire department has long battled allegations of discrimination. The city's firehouses were segregated until the mid-1950s. It wasn't until the ‘70s that a federal consent decree led to increases in minority hirings. And recently, the city auditor found that women and minorities were still being passed over for promotions. Another large percentage said they suffered harassment on the job.

Mr. JACK WEISS (Los Angeles City Council): It is a culture. It is difficult to change. But you can't tell me that it's entrenched.

KAHN: LA Councilman Jack Weiss heads up the city's public safety committee. He says Bamattre may have improved the department's firefighting capabilities, but he couldn't confront the culture.

Mr. WEISS: You need a new dynamic leader, who can look the captains who run the squads in each fire department in the eye and say folks, this is not acceptable. You are professionals. Go out there and require your firefighters to comply.

KAHN: Ironically, Bamattre was hired 11 years ago after his predecessor abruptly quit during a similar crisis. At the time, he pledged to end discrimination and harassment in the department. More than a decade later, William Bamattre is leaving without fulfilling that commitment.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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