Ala. firefighters seek action after criminal charge, complaint made against colleague

Gadsden firefighters voiced concerns about the fire department culture in the wake of a commander's arrest for sexual abuse


Donna Thornton
The Gadsden Times, Ala.

GADSDEN, Ala. — An emergency meeting of the Gadsden Civil Service Board was called Thursday with one purpose — to discuss naming a new interim fire chief, to serve until the board can interview five remaining candidates for the job and name someone to lead the department.

The board did.

Board President Alice Pruett said Mayor Sherman Guyton had recommended Assistant Chief Craig Cannon as the new interim chief, and the board approved his appointment.

For some Gadsden firefighters, however, there is a larger discussion that needs to occur — about the "culture" within the department, and what they see as a failure of the department to properly discipline a member of their ranks.

The Times was supplied with a document — "a statement on the current environment within the Gadsden Fire Department" — that firefighters say they've brought to the city's Civil Service Board. The document calls for a commander in the department to be brought before the board for termination after an arrest and a complaint against him with the board.

Pruett said prior to Thursday's meeting that the board has not accepted anything from firefighters. She said complaints that the board can act on must come through fire or police leadership, or from an individual complainant.

Pruett said a complaint has been filed by an individual in this case and the board acted on it. The firefighter has been "suspended," with pay, she said.

A complaint was filed Feb. 3, accusing a member of the fire department, identified as Ricky Bishop, of "conduct unbecoming an officer or employee of the City" and "any criminal act."

Richard Bishop, 46, was arrested Jan. 28 on a felony charge, first-degree sexual abuse. Court documents state Bishop is accused of subjecting an individual to sexual contact by forcible compulsion on or about Nov. 17.

"Rick Bishop maintains his innocence from these charges," said Gadsden attorney Sam Bone, who represents Bishop. "We look forward to his day in court to show he is not guilty of this crime."

Pruett said the board normally waits to hear a civil service complaint until criminal charges have been resolved. However, at Thursday's meeting the board decided to have its attorney, Randy Phillips, contact Bishop's attorney to set a hearing date.

The civil service complaint form against the firefighter includes a statement to "set forth the facts, which you claim proves" the offenses. In it a female employee of the city said she was groped while alone with the accused in an office. She said she told him not to grope her, and to stop, and that he released her only when the office phone rang.

She said she left work and called the department's EMS chief, who told her she needed to contact then-Fire Chief Stephen Carroll, and that he would contact the accused and tell him not to contact her or come into the office.

When the fire chief was back at work the next day, she wrote in the statement, she told him about the incident.

The group of firefighters say the subject was transferred to another fire station — something that is not considered a disciplinary act. In the document the group provided, concern is expressed for the female employee who brought the complaint, and the hostile work environment she faced after reporting the incident.

"She's been drug through the mud," one firefighter said.

They ask for a full investigation so that any victims of abuse "at the hands of this individual may know that they are of the utmost value to the department and the city."

The document asserts that should include discipline for any ranking officers in the department who failed to implement proper disciplinary action.

Pruett also expressed concern about the culture within the fire department. She said the board has held off on interviewing applicants for the chief's job, and that she hopes the fire department would resolve some of the issues from within.

They voted at Thursday's meeting to wait until the next regular meeting to hold interviews — by which time, Pruett said, she hopes things will have calmed down.

At that meeting, Pruett urged firefighters to work on the issues within the department. "It starts with you guys," she said.

She said the board does not run the fire department — it only handles hiring, firing, promoting and disciplining its personnel.

Pruett said she believes the group of firefighters hope, through the document prepared, to influence the selection of the next chief.

She said board members were not opposed to hearing from people about any of the candidates, but it needs to occur in an open meeting, and the candidate must have an opportunity to respond. She noted that people have sought out elected officials and the media to get information out, but that's not the way the Civil Service Board does business.

"If there is information we need to know about an applicant," she said, the board wants to hearing it, but in the proper way.

Five applicants for the job remain after Interim Chief Jim Matlock filed paperwork to retire and removed his name from consideration for the chief's job. All candidates are from within the ranks of the Gadsden Fire Department.

Matlock met with board members in executive session, saying he had information to give them. Afterward, Pruett thanked him for the insight offered, and for his 40 years and six months of service with the department. Board member Craig Inzer also expressed his thanks for Matlock's service.

Gadsden firefighter Tony Calvert asked the board how department members should communicate with the board. "We're not seeking to influence, just to communicate with you," he said. "You are our board. You are our protection, and we certainly appreciate that."

Pruett said the situation facing the department and the board is a unique one in her decades of involvement with the board.

"We want to get the best chief," she said, "one who can bring the department together."

She said the board would work to find a fair way for employees to communicate, that would provide an appropriate way for subjects to respond.

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(c)2021 The Gadsden Times, Ala.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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