The New Haven Fire Department has suspended one of its firefighters after finding racist comments posted on his Facebook page.
Lieutenant Kevin Owens on Sept. 1 was removed from his position within the NHFD after a comment he had made on Facebook circulated through the department, eventually making its way to the Mayor’s Office. In a public order to city officials, Fire Chief Allan Wright wrote that the lieutenant violated departmental rules by using language “damaging to the reputation of the department.” Owens’s post has since been taken down, but Elm City-based television station News 8 published a screenshot of it, in which Owens wrote, “In the U.S., we call them n—” in response to an article about Muslims on a Facebook page called “Wake Up England.”
Doris Bumas, president of the Greater New Haven chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the chapter commends Wright for suspending the lieutenant.
“He broke the trust of the people, and if you harbor those kinds of feelings you should not be working in public services,” Bumas said. “His integrity and his leadership to the community have been misrepresented.”
In conversations across the city, New Haven residents expressed similar sentiments and condemned the Facebook post.
When news of the Facebook post reached Mayor Toni Harp last week, she too spoke out against the words spoken, telling reporters that she was “enraged” by the comment. She added, however, that an inner-departmental review was necessary to determine final action.
The New Haven Firebirds, an organization of minority firefighters at NHFD, also spoke angrily about the comments in a press conference last week.
“How can he serve mankind or the people in this community with sentiments of that in his heart?” fellow firefighter Darrell Brooks asked during the conference.
At the conference, organization leaders said Owens should be stripped of his leadership role within the force, but they disagreed about whether Owens should lose his job on a permanent basis. While Brooks said he did not want to see the firefighter terminated, former Fire Board Commissioner Boise Kimber said Owens should be forced to recognize the consequences of his actions.
The NHFD has been investigated for racist incidents in the past. In 2009, the Supreme Court investigated claims made in Ricci v. DeStefano that the fire department had failed to promote minorities who had demonstrated eligibility for management positions. The Court held that New Haven’s hiring practice had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Moving forward, city spokesman Laurence Grotheer said that additional sensitivity training should be offered to all city employees, and City Hall should review and clarify social media standards for workers.
“City employees represent New Haven in their actions and racially insensitive behavior reflects poorly on the city,” Grotheer said.
But Bumas said the problem will not be resolved through mere sensitivity training. She said there is still a lack of diversity in the department, something that she knows the higher ranks are paying attention to, and something she hopes will begin to change as the fire department moves forward.
As of Wednesday, Owens is set to return to the force Sept. 30.