Alleged hate crime at fire station

July 7, 2009 9:30:32 PM PDT
Houston police are investigating the Houston Fire Department. Racially charged remarks were found at a fire station Tuesday morning, aimed at two female firefighters. One of the female firefighters is African-American and the other is white. The case has been turned over to the Houston Police Department. As the investigation gets underway, the office of inspector general is classifying the incident as a hate crime.

At a news conference Tuesday, Houston Fire Chief Phil Boriskie did not mince words.

"I'm angry, disappointed, embarrassed. I'm bothered and we do not condone these actions," he said. "The person that did this does not wear the same badge as me, does not wear the same uniform as me, or believe in the same things that I believe in."

On Tuesday morning two female firefighters who reported to work at Station 54 near Bush Intercontinental Airport were met with racially charged graffiti that was also sexual in nature.

The disparaging remarks were discovered in the female firefighters' quarters. One was written on a door. Other racial slurs, we are told, were found throughout their quarters as well.

HFD Executive Assistant Chief Rick Flanagan said, "How sad it is for whoever this person is that did this, I want him brought before us so we can make a decision that he doesn't belong here. He doesn't wear this badge that I wear."

Flanagan tried bottling his emotions as he promised the public and the men and women of his department justice. Meantime, the Houston Police Department has taken the lead on the investigation. For the time being, Station 54 is being treated as a crime scene.

HPD Captain David Watkins explained, "It's very important that we be allowed to have the time and the personnel associated with the investigation to do the appropriate investigation and make sure that we uncover the individuals responsible for this."

A source also told Eyewitness News that Station 54 uses an access card system for its employees. Investigators are looking over those records to determine who had access to the fire house.

The Houston Professional Firefighters Association says if the allegations are proved to be true, it supports appropriate disciplinary action.

"We're giving you an 'F' in race relations. It's time for you to get up and do your job," said HPFA President Otis Jordan.

The union is calling it not only a hate crime, but also a death threat. They're calling for an independent federal investigation looking into what's going on in HFD.

Community activists joined the union in demanding that city leaders do something to end what it calls rampant racism within the department.

"We believe that what happened is but another symptom of the sickness that is pervasive in the Houston Fire Department," said Deric Muhamad.

Critics say action is long overdue, citing this conversation heard over fire station radios earlier this year.

That incident was preceded by another instance where a rope resembling a noose was found inside the locker of a white fire captain who remains on the job.

"We believe that if indeed Mayor Bill White and Chief Boroskie had handled the noose incident as it should have been handled, then this individual who wrote these death threats on the wall may not have felt as comfortable as he did," said Muhamad.

All of this is coming on the heels of what's expected to be a massive rally on July 28 at noon in front of City Hall. Organizers are calling for an end to racism at HFD.

The union says it will seek to get those two female firefighters transferred to another fire station while the investigation unfolds.

Just three weeks ago, Houston's City Council set aside money for sensitivity training for the fire department.

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