Six Miami firefighters have been fired after someone hung a noose over a black colleague's family photo and drew lewd images on a picture of his wife.
The terminations, handed down Wednesday, follow a police investigation into the Sept. 9 incident at a city fire station. More than 20 people were interviewed under oath and nearly a dozen firefighters were investigated, including five who remain employed by the department and under scrutiny. Among those fired: William W. Bryson, the son of former Fire Chief William "Shorty" Bryson.
In a statement, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso said investigators uncovered "sexually explicit and racially offensive conduct" by the city's employees. He said personnel assigned to the station were transferred after the incident was reported, and 11 firefighters were relieved of duty with pay ahead of Wednesday's firings.
"We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that is disrespectful, hurtful and compromises the integrity of the department and the City of Miami," Alfonso said.
According to Jose Rodriguez, the police major in charge of internal affairs at the time of the incident, police initially responded to the fire station on a potential case of vandalism but ultimately carried out the probe as a civil investigation that was turned over to fire department executives. The Miami Herald reports that sources familiar with the case said someone created a noose out of twine and hung it over a family photo of an African American lieutenant.
Several of his colleagues also drew lewd pictures on several other photos, including one of his wife and one of his children and their grandmother, according to the Herald. Termination letters sent Wednesday said that firefighters "defaced several personal photos of a fellow firefighter with graphic and obscene phallic renderings."
Along with Bryson, firefighters Kevin Meizoso, David Rivera, Justin Rumbaugh, Harold Santana and Alejandro Sese were fired.
The incident is just the latest blemish for a fire department with a history of lewd pranks. Infamously, rookies in the late 1980s were handcuffed while other firefighters sat on their face during the perverse "scrotum on the head" hazing ritual. Four firefighters were fired, but reinstated after investigators determined that "scrotumizing" was an old department tradition.
Around the same time, the department's union — under the leadership of then-Capt. Shorty Bryson — kicked out 64 black firefighters who claimed they were expelled over their support of the city's affirmative action program. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later found that the firefighters' civil rights had been violated.
Attempts to reach the Brysons Wednesday were unsuccessful.
According to termination letters sent to the firefighters, Sese came up with the idea of defacing the photos and retrieved them. Meizoso, Rumbaugh and Santana drew lewd, phallic images on the photos, and Rivera returned them to their picture frames. Bryson is accused of failing to stop the vandalism and of ignoring requests from subordinates to come forward and report the incident.
Investigators, however, could not determine who made the noose, according to sources.
Reached Wednesday, Rumbaugh and Sese declined interviews. Neither had hired an attorney.
"I apologize but I really have no comments today," said Rumbaugh.
Freddy Delgado, president of Miami's International Association of Firefighters, said the union was made aware of the incident when it was discovered by Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, but remains unclear about the facts of the investigation. He said people shouldn't judge the fired firefighters without knowing more about what happened.
"We expect all of our members to be provided a safe, comfortable workplace and also to fair and complete investigations and just discipline when it's warranted," Delgado said. "We have not yet been provided with all the information that the city relied upon in making the decisions it did today. We are very disturbed by the allegations and look forward to the opportunity to review all the facts."
Under the city's civil service procedures, the fired firefighters can dispute their terminations. More employees could be punished in the coming weeks, although the discipline would likely come down as suspensions or demotions.
"It is the policy of the City of Miami to provide a workplace for all employees that is free from intimidation, threats or violent acts," Alfonso said.
Alfonso said the city will hold a press conference Friday morning to discuss the firings.