Friday, December 6, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Firefighters union and commissioners call for strengthening AFD sexual harassment policy

In the aftermath of several public sexual harassment cases, Austin EMS and the police and fire departments are updating their sexual harassment policies to create consistency across city emergency services.

The action comes in the wake of Austin Fire Department Lt. James Baker’s guilty plea to hiding a camera and filming firefighter Kelly Gall in the fire station restroom. The incident culminated with Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore offering Baker a plea deal that consisted of five years’ probation and the loss of his EMT and firefighting licenses.

Austin Fire Captain Christine Jones came to the Dec. 2 meeting of the Public Safety Commission to share a similar story about the harassment, gender-specific insults and slurs she was subjected to by Captain Roger Scarcliff while on the job. As a result of her complaint, Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker suspended Scarcliff for just one day.

The resolution of these cases spurred a negative reaction from Austinites, firefighters and the Austin Firefighters Association, and prompted AFD to reassess its policies.

Capt. Jones and the firefighters union, however, say that the revisions do not go far enough, and the Public Safety Commission agreed.

Jones explained that the union is collectively asking for changes to the disciplinary process as well as for the firehouse command to have outside oversight when handling sexual harassment complaints. One change the union is requesting is to allow victims of harassment to directly address the fire chief and commanding officers who are evaluating the case. Under current policy, the accused is allowed to address those parties.

“We’ve been asking for these changes for almost a year now,” Jones said. “I don’t understand their resistance to it.”

The commission voted unanimously to recommend that AFD’s sexual harassment policy updates should include victim access to the decision-makers. Offering victims the opportunity to speak directly with their chain of command and the fire chief would provide more context for a case and assist the leadership in making a better decision, Jones told the Austin Monitor.

Public Safety Commissioner Rebecca Webber agreed that offering both sides equal access to the decision-makers was a fair request. However, she suggested that even having that access was insufficient to promote changes in the sexual harassment disciplinary process. She recommended that the victim be supported by someone in the decision room who reflects the victim’s gender, racial or sexual identity.

Jones emphasized that having a woman present during evidentiary hearings was crucial, as there are only two female fire captains, including herself and one female division chief at AFD. In total, the Fire Department has 71 captains.

Additionally, Webber recommended that a union representative attend the meetings for the victim. The union currently sends a representative to support the accused, according to Jones.

Perhaps most importantly, Jones explained that the AFD disciplinary process needs an independent oversight committee. She said having a third party involved will increase accountability for decisions made by the leadership team.

“In my case, it’s quite obvious that (Chief Joel Baker) did not understand (the situation). And when the buck stops with him, what did you do?” Jones told the Monitor. “I feel like there needs to be an outside entity to hold some accountability.”

A spokesperson for the Fire Department explained that in the policy update, a third party will investigate all sexual harassment cases in a process that will be managed by the city’s HR department. Additionally, employees can report harassment to entities outside of their chain of command, including AFD Human Resources, city Human Resources, the Integrity Unit at the city auditor’s office and AFD’s internal anonymous reporting system.

Previously, AFD implemented the electronic and anonymous reporting system, or EARS, which was intended to bypass the firehouse hierarchy and get complaints directly onto the desk of the fire chief, the city’s HR department and the Austin Firefighters Association for immediate action.

AFD is finalizing its revised sexual harassment policy draft this week. Following its release, the draft will be sent to the department workforce and the Austin Firefighters Association for review before a completed version is adopted in early 2020.

Assistant Chief Rob Vires told the Public Safety Commission he expects the new policies to be in place by January or February of next year.

Photo by Jonathan Cutrer made available through a Creative Commons license.

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