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AFD under fire for handling of sexual harassment claim despite policy updates

Friday, August 9, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After Austin Fire Department Lieutenant James Baker pleaded guilty to hiding a camera and filming firefighter Kelly Gall in the fire station restroom, AFD revised its harassment policies and implemented the Electronic and Anonymous Reporting System.

EARS is intended to bypass the firehouse hierarchy and get complaints directly onto the desk of the fire chief, the city’s human resources department and the Austin Fire Association for immediate action. According to Gall, the system has already failed.

Gall reported another case of harassment in summer 2018, citing a fellow firefighter who continually called her “darling” and requested hugs from her. However, she told the Public Safety Commission at its Aug. 5 meeting that instead of receiving communications from the city’s leaders, “I believe that the complaint was kicked back down the chain of command.”

She explained that when her battalion chief and captain called her in for a meeting regarding the harassment complaint, they asked if she wished to file the complaint formally. EARS is intended to be a formal filing process.

During the meeting, Gall told the commission that her superiors asked her, “Do you think calling someone ‘darling’ warrants a (Professional Standards Office) investigation?”

The lieutenant she filed the complaint against was transferred to another station and Gall was told to “drop it and move on.” No formal investigation was conducted.

“We seem to keep repeating the same process,” she said, referencing the way harassment complaints against Lieutenant Baker were handled by the department. In 2013, he was seen groping patients during emergency calls and when his conduct was reported he was taken off a few shifts before reporting back to work normally.

Bob Nicks, the president of the Austin Firefighters Association, told the commission that when he brought this most recent incident to the attention of Chief Joel Baker, “he backed the old regime” and agreed it was appropriate that the lieutenant had transferred stations.

“It sounds like that was a failure in many ways,” said Commissioner Meghan Hollis.

Several commissioners pointed out that this case illuminates “really deep concern” about the Austin Fire Department culture.

The department is male-dominated, and Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt said it is “incredibly difficult” to be a woman working there. Only 7.4 percent of Austin firefighters are women – which is twice the national average of 3.5 percent.

Nicks explained that having such a skewed dominance of gender can lead to a culture where men do not always comprehend the effect of their actions. To help bring attention to the consequences, he said complaints need to be addressed seriously and not just swept under the rug with a transfer to another station.

“It just flies in the face of reason that you’re going to turn a complaint into the command staff and they’re going to adjudicate it correctly,” he said. Instead, he suggested setting up a citizen oversight council similar to the Office of Police Oversight.

Gall, who made it clear she was hesitant to file the latest complaint and come before the commission, explained that while it has affected her career permanently, she feels strongly that sexual harassment policies at the fire department need to be addressed with more gravity.

“I applaud you for your bravery and your willingness to come forward and talk to us,” said Commissioner Hollis.

Photo by J.Köster [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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