HFD captain apologizes for locker noose

July 27, 2009 4:14:13 PM PDT
A Houston fire captain apologized for what he describes as a misunderstanding and, in doing so, finds support from local African-American leaders. It all comes at a time when city leaders are deciding how to tackle racial tension within the Houston Fire Department. We've told you about a series of racial incidents that have gotten the attention of Mayor Bill White and city council members, the most serious of which involve racist graffiti painted on the walls inside a fire station earlier this month. Community activists have also been calling for resignations over what was described as a noose hanging in a fire captain's locker room.

On Monday, that captain broke his silence while the public got a chance to share their concerns with city leaders.

For the first time since a picture of a noose like rope hanging in his locker surfaced, Senior Fire Captain Keith Smith addressed allegations he's a racist head on.

"The rope that was in my locker was one that was issued to me in the fire academy," said Capt. Smith.

Captain Smith said for years he has used the rope to practice tying various knots and never realized it could be seen as a racist statement. That was until a firefighter made it an issue last February.

The controversy that ensued led to protests, and pronouncements from some activists in the African-American community who called for the captain's dismissal.

"When you have evil tolerance for racial symbols and stuff, it doesn't matter what your intent was," said community activist Deric Muhammed.

However, the NAACP sees the situation differently. After months of investigation, the civil rights organization came out in support of the captain Monday. Houston NAACP Vice President D. Z. Cofield says Smith has been unfairly vilified and that he's not a racist.

"Some may be surprised by the NAACP's action, for us to stand with Capt. Smith, but for us it's not a question of black and white, it's a question of right and wrong. And we believe Capt. Smith was wrongly treated," said Cofield.

The NAACP now believes that Captain Smith should have that letter of reprimand removed from his file and they have made that recommendation to the fire department. The fire chief hasn't commented on whether or not that should happen.

This noose incident and several other diversity issues is the focus of an intense public hearing at city hall. Both the fire chief and community leaders say diversity issues in the department needs to be addressed. They and the captain are trying to put this one noose issue to rest.

"I was not aware that this is considered a racial symbol and after talking to Pastor Colefield some of my present and past crew as well as a few friends who are African-American, I'm now fully aware that this is a racial symbol. I'd like apologize for this outcome to the citizens of Houston, and the men and women of the HFD," said Capt. Smith.

Houston City Councilmember Melissa Noriega organized a hearing Monday to focus on the fire department's racial issues. She said new policies need to be developed.

"There's a clear message here that this is not acceptable. We need to address what that policy is," said Councilmember Noriega.

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