Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Public safety

Arbitrator cites ‘odor’ of racism in firing of Clearwater fire lieutenant, orders him reinstated

CLEARWATER —There wasn’t enough evidence to conclude for sure that discrimination played into the city’s 2016 firing of Clearwater Fire & Rescue Lt. Nathaniel Brooks.

But there was little to suggest it was anything else, arbitrator Anthony Redwood ruled in the case.

The anonymous tipster who prompted the city to look into Brooks’ previous run-ins with the law came after the lieutenant, who is African American, had filed formal discrimination complaints. Finding previously undisclosed arrests, the city failed to properly investigate the charges and fired Brooks despite 11 years of flawless work history and the fact that none of his three criminal charges resulted in convictions, Redwood said.

While the city was obligated to deal with the anonymous complaint, it was "also obligated to deal with it in good faith because such methods of complaint are usually not driven by altruism but by vindictiveness, that can include racism," Redwood wrote. "This is the coward’s way of sticking it to somebody."

Because the city did not prove there was just cause for the firing, the arbitrator ruled Brooks must be returned to his position and compensated for lost pay and benefits. The city is still calculating what he is owed in wages, overtime and benefits, but his annual salary when he was fired Dec. 27, 2016 was $67,155, said Human Resources Director Joseph Roseto.

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Brooks, 50, said the ruling was affirmation that his nearly two-year fight to clear his name was not in vain.

"It consumed me from the day they started investigating until I got the news the arbitrator ruled in my favor," Brooks said. "It’s all I could think about. It’s probably all I talked about."

On his June 2005 application to be a Clearwater fire medic, Brooks stated he had never been convicted of a crime, never entered a plea of nolo contendere, and was not currently under any charges.

But in responding to the anonymous complaint in September 2016, the city found previously undisclosed arrests.

While stationed in El Paso, Texas with the U.S. Army in 1987, Brooks was charged with unlawful possession of a concealed weapon when a police officer approached his parked car for a broken tail light and saw a set of nunchucks under the back seat. The case was ultimately dismissed in 1989.

Brooks was also charged in 2004 with solicitation, but said he was "led to understand that this case was closed in early 2005" after completing a misdemeanor intervention program and therefore was not a "current charge" at the time he completed his application form. He was recalled by the court in 2006, after being hired by the city in September 2005, because his public defender had failed to attend a court hearing in the case in 2005. However the charge was dismissed in 2006 and later expunged.

In July of 2005, after he applied to the city but before he was hired, Brooks was also charged with a misdemeanor worthless checks charge in Hillsborough County. He said his checkbook was stolen from his truck, but he pleaded guilty, paid restitution and was not formally convicted.

Redwood said the fact the hearing and restitution process occurred after Brooks was hired did raise the question of whether he should have disclosed the matter. Either way, it did not rise to the level of terminable offense, he said.

Redwood said Brooks was truthful in stating he had never been convicted of a crime related to the 1987 charge. He called the 2004 and 2005 charges "stale and minor" and did not rise to the level of being reportable under the city’s Serious Incident Reporting Policy. He also said "there is zero evidence" the city made efforts to look into Brooks’ explanations of the charges or spent any time considering his service record.

"The investigation by the city was not a fair one," Redwood stated. "The imposition of the harsh penalty of termination in the circumstances of this case without regard to the grievant’s work history and impeccable disciplinary record can only be described as arbitrary and capricious."

In the two years before his firing, Brooks filed two discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He said he had begun working on qualifying for promotion to a rescue lieutenant in 2014 but was thwarted from gaining the required practical experience.

He was transferred from his shift and station after the first complaint. He was also passed over for the promotion five times despite having passed required tests.

Redwood pointed to statistics that of the 66 promotions and appointments to officer positions between 2005 and 2015, only two were African Americans. He said anonymous tips, like the one that prompted the investigation into Brooks, are often a result of conflict and grudges within an organization, or a way of expressing racial animus.

"If there is no certainty, there is certainly an ‘odor’ about elements of this case," Redwood said.

City Manager Bill Horne said he was "very disappointed" in the allegations of racial discrimination by the arbitrator and strongly disagreed. He said he has made various efforts over the years to encourage rank and file employees of color to apply for chief positions. Allegations of racism have not been raised in various employee surveys over the years or in a 2017 evaluation of the department by organizational psychologists.

Sean Becker, president of the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association, said Brooks was treated unfairly. But Becker does not believe the case represents a broader culture of racism within Clearwater Fire & Rescue.

"It’s not the rank and file that has any issues," Becker said. "We, the blue shirts, didn’t fire him. The city fired him."

Roseto said racism played no role in the administration’s decision to fire Brooks. He said although Brooks had not been convicted of crimes, "he had the arrest records and concealed it from the city. If we had known about it at the time he never would have been hired."

Brooks is not hesitant to return to the department that fought to uphold his termination. Since his firing, Brooks has been working as a paramedic in Tampa. But he always dreamed of returning to work at Clearwater Fire & Rescue "which is like a family."

"It wasn’t just a job, it was my career," Brooks said. "To have it cut short right in the middle knowing I didn’t do anything wrong was motivation to fight to get it back."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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