As a taxpayer, I don't find much to celebrate in the new-and-improved
settlement of the hazing lawsuit in the dog food case of Los Angeles
firefighter Tennie Pierce.
For all the crowing by politicians at Friday's settlement announcement, the
city's tab is actually expected to exceed the previous $2.7-million offer to
Pierce, which generated a firestorm of public outrage last fall when it was
approved -- then vetoed by the mayor and rescinded.
This time, Pierce gets less money and the lawyers get more. And the rest of us
lose a chance to find out, through a public trial, how much like frat houses
our city's fire stations really are.
City officials say the settlement -- about $1.5 million for Pierce and $1.3
million for the city's outside lawyers -- reflects the possibility that a jury
might have awarded Pierce much more. It also spares the city the ugly and
divisive spectacle of a trial that would have embarrassed a department long
considered one of the nation's best.
The antics of some firefighters -- and the department's failure to rein them
in -- have cost the city $13.5 million in legal payouts during the last year,
including $6.2 million to a black lesbian firefighter whose mouthwash bottle
was filled with urine in a station-house prank, more than $2 million to two
white male firefighters who were retaliated against for going to her defense,
and $320,000 to a female firefighter sexually harassed by her male captain.
The Pierce lawsuit shook loose dozens of photos depicting firefighters --
including Pierce -- engaging in shenanigans, including smearing what looks
like mustard on the body of a fireman tied to a chair and pretending to shave
another's private parts.
I had hoped a trial would help answer a nagging question:
What's with a bunch of grown men -- highly trained professionals, life-saving
heroes who can make more than $100,000 a year -- getting their kicks making
prank phone calls; dousing one another with buckets of water; ridiculing
blacks, Jews, gays, women . . . and calling it old-fashioned, macho fun?
I was hoping for an answer on Saturday when I met with the city's new fire
chief, Doug Barry, over breakfast at his neighborhood Denny's in Lakewood. It
turns out Barry doesn't get the humor either.
In his 32 years in the department, Barry never cared much for the raucous
firehouse culture. He loved fighting fires, treating the ill and injured,
handling dangerous emergency calls, he said. But the "horseplay," as he calls
it? "It didn't look like much fun to me at all."
He said he made a habit of walking away rather than participating in even
good-natured pranks. It doesn't seem to have hurt his standing with fellow
firefighters or slowed his rise through department ranks.
What hurts him now, he said, is the black eye the department has suffered
because of the perception that the conduct in some fire stations makes "Animal
House" look like a debutante ball. "It's very embarrassing to me," he said.
"It speaks poorly of us."
Barry didn't grow up dreaming of being a firefighter. He was working for the
county coroner's office when he glimpsed a late-night television commercial
soliciting firefighter recruits. It seemed more appealing than following his
brother into the Los Angeles Police Department.
In 1975 -- with the department under a federal consent decree requiring half
of new recruits to be minorities -- Barry became one of a handful of black
firefighters on a force whose fire stations had been segregated just 20 years
With straight-faced sincerity, Barry told me he has never faced discrimination
on the job. I suspect that says more about his outlook on life than about the
specifics of his years as a firefighter.
His truck driver father taught him three things, he said. Work hard. Treat
people the way you'd like to be treated. And don't expect the world to be
For all the headlines last week suggesting Barry's appointment as the city's
first black fire chief was a concession to diversity, I find when I'm sitting
across from him that his race hardly registers at all with me.
I'm struck by a sort of colorlessness in his manner, his speech, his
sensitivities -- so much so that I am almost embarrassed to ask him a question
I know some are raising privately.
Does he worry about being seen as a token?
His voice doesn't change, his face betrays no sense of insult or indignity. "I
don't feel that way," he said. "People may think that way. But if I'm good at
what I do, I'll dispel that notion over time."
His confidence seems at odds with history. Barry had a front-row seat as his
last two predecessors fell, both chiefs dispatched by hazing scandals that
they failed to quell.
Twelve years ago, when a scathing city audit found widespread racism and
sexism in the department, Barry often accompanied former Fire Chief Donald O.
Manning to meetings of the City Council committee investigating the
allegations. Manning was forced to resign in 1995. When Bill Bamattre was
appointed to replace Manning, Barry became his chief of staff. Bamattre
resigned last December amid the uproar that accompanied Pierce's case, and
Barry was asked to be interim chief.
Intending to retire soon, Barry didn't apply for the permanent job. But after
an eight-month search, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked him last month to stay
on. Now Barry is being called "an agent of change," the same label Bamattre
once had. So what makes Barry think he can succeed where Bamattre failed?
He's got universal support from elected officials and a promise of more money
for officer training. He's got a plan to reform the discipline system, teach
commanders how to better handle conflicts and improve the recruitment and
retention of minorities and females.
But most important, he's got an embarrassed rank-and-file that he thinks is
finally willing to change.
Firefighters are accustomed to being heroes. Men envy them and women ogle
them; kids sidle up to them for photographs; neighbors drop by their stations
It's been hard on them, this unmasking of a private culture, so at odds with
what the public expects.
"None of us are happy or proud about the way we've been portrayed," said
Barry, who's been making the rounds of the city's fire stations to talk about
the reforms to come.
"The stories, the photos splashed all over. . . . It hurt. I think
firefighters are motivated to do things differently now. To say, 'This is not
who we are.' "
I hope so. But it's the face they've shown to the city. And anybody who's ever
played with condiments knows it can take a lot of scrubbing to get a mustard