Fla. fire marshal probed for using racial slur

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The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A fire division chief used a racial slur in a staff meeting, an email complaint alleges.

While discussing plans about Jacksonville’s Welcome to Rockville concert festival, Fire Marshal Kevin Jones used the N-word to refer to concert attendees, saying “if those [expletive] try to put more than that in the park, they will have to deal with me,” according to a written complaint.

News4Jax obtained an email from the city that detailed the complaint against Jones by a fellow firefighter.

“This was very offensive to me as a black man because of all the racial issues going on within the JFRD,” wrote engineer Stephen A. Crooms.

Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt said Jones, who is a black man, is an example of the fire department’s diversity. With that diversity, though, comes different cultural backgrounds, he said.

“As a community that recognizes diversity, just because people speak or use terminology or street slang that we may not recognize or be part of, that doesn’t mean we automatically attack them for it,” he said. “We have to recognize not everybody’s the same.”

The investigation will need to determine whether Jones used the N-word and whether he used it maliciously or not, Senterfitt said.

“One side says: There was this real derogatory term used, and it was used toward others. The other side is: This was just a basic street slang used, and it wasn’t directed at anybody with any intent and it was just a figure of speech.”

Regardless, he said, if the N-word was used, some form of discipline will be necessary. The discipline can range from sensitivity training to a reprimand to a suspension or firing, depending on how the word was used and what the context was.

“In order for us to work together in this mixed society we have in Jacksonville, we have to be a little more accepting and a little less hypersensitive,” Senterfitt said. “It would be so easy to get offended every single day. A diverse workforce means people are going to look differently from you, dress different from you and speak differently from you.”

He said this accusation came as a surprise because Jones has a strong reputation and not many complaints. He said Jones was vetted before being appointed as the city’s fire marshal.

“Any use of the word in the workplace needs to be addressed,” Senterfitt said. “It’s absolutely inappropriate in the workplace.”

Fire department spokesman Tom Francis said Jones does not have a disciplinary file from recent years.

Senterfitt said issues of politics, race and religion shouldn’t be dealt with in the department, but if someone says something inappropriate, complaints should be filed.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed discrimination lawsuits against the city of Jacksonville and the firefighters union, alleging that the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department discriminated in its promotions.

A year earlier, two dozen firefighters sued the city and the union with similar allegations.

All three lawsuits are still active.

Senterfitt said the fire department has had racial discrimination lawsuits going back to the 1970s, and that though he believes morale in the department is strong and it is a less discriminatory workplace, racial issues are still highly contentious.

“We’re extremely sensitive to these allegations,” he said. “We have found that the cases are as often not true as they are true.”

Copyright 2014 The Florida Times-Union
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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