Black NC Firefighters File Discrimination Lawsuit

Thomas Penn (center) with other firefighters at a kickoff event for OMNIBUS August 2020

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — A group of Black firefighters in North Carolina has filed a lawsuit against their city and their fire chief, alleging that he has not made an effort to prevent racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation within his department.

A Charlotte consulting group hired to conduct a “climate study” in the wake of the grievances concluded that while racism exists within the department, it heard no complaints that Mayo himself is racist.

“In instances when a complaint has been found to be valid, the offending WSFD employee has been transferred to a new station, not subject to any more meaningful discipline,” the lawsuit said. “The systemic protection of employees guilty of harassment and discrimination has created and fostered an environment where federally-protected rights are violated with near impunity.”

Thomas Penn, a Winston-Salem firefighter and plaintiff, said the lawsuit is designed in part to demonstrate the extent of the problem to the public.

“Our lawsuit shines the light of truth on the bad apples and their misdeeds that are too often swept under the rug,” Penn said. “It also provides a forum for those of every race and background by which to stand on the side of fairness and equality.” 

Neither Mayo nor City Manager Lee Garrity responded Friday to separate emails seeking their reaction to the lawsuit. City Attorney Angela Carmon said in an email that the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation and would respond to the lawsuit “in the appropriate forum.”

Specifically, the lawsuit points to one instance last June in which Mayo directed a discrimination complaint to a chaplain instead of launching an investigation. The lawsuit also points to other examples in which Mayo did nothing to address the concerns of Black firefighters.

“Chief Mayo, when confronted with an instance when a noose was tied during a training class, directed that the person move to a different topic, specifically stating ‘Next topic’ rather than address the event,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says Mayo has openly said that he is “tired of hearing about diversity.”

Also, the lawsuit says, when Black firefighters complain about discrimination or harassment, “they also face retaliation and retribution in the form or rumors that the African-American firefighter is ‘untrainable’ or ‘lazy.’”

The group’s lawsuit targets others in the department but does not name them as defendants. Teaching a class on how firefighters should deal with demonstrators in light of the death of George Floyd, one captain said he could solve the problem as he drove home from work by hitting protesters with his vehicle. 

They also point to comments made by another fire captain who suggested authorities unleash German shepherds on Black Lives Matter protesters, an idea that conjured up images of Southern police officers dealing with civil rights protesters in the 1960s, the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and back pay and front pay in an amount to be determined by the jury. The group also seeks actual damages, compensatory damages against the defendants, and attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs.

The lawsuit filed in a North Carolina federal court on behalf of Black members of the Winston-Salem Fire Department follows a grievance by the group last year. In that filing, the group called on the city to fire Chief William “Trey” Mayo for failing to discipline white firefighters who, the group said, have created a hostile work environment through comments in person and on social media.

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