South Bend Female Firefighters Call Out History of Sexual Harassment

Female South Bend firefighters demand that the mayor address the culture of harassment and discrimination.
(South Bend Fire Department)

Letter demands mayor address culture of
harassment and discrimination

Jeff Parrott, South Bend Tribune, Ind.

(MCT)

Apr. 14–SOUTH BEND – The South Bend Fire Department’s 12 female members have sent the mayor’s office a letter demanding that it address what they say is a longstanding culture of sexual harassment and discrimination, pointing to the discipline of a captain in a recent incident.

The letter, obtained by The Tribune, doesn’t identify the captain or the female firefighter involved but says that on Dec. 24 at Station 8, in the Twyckenham Hills area, the captain “not only demeaned, harassed and blocked her escape when he was verbally harassing her, but also battered her by striking her in the head.”

Chief Carl Buchanon placed the captain on 24-hour unpaid leave, broken up into three 8-hour days, according to a notice that he sent the Board of Public Safety and that the city provided to The Tribune after a public records request.

The women wrote that the captain received the same punishment, 24 hours of unpaid leave, that a firefighter receives for being late or missing work, technically called “absent without leave.”

“You have failed us,” their letter states. “The fire department administration, the city, and the Board of Public Safety have failed the women of the South Bend Fire Department. We come to work expecting a workplace free of harassment and violence, yet when it occurs it is treated like a slap on the wrist, even when the accused captain freely admits to the actions… and this was his third offense!”

City code allows the chief to impose his own discipline, rather than referring it to the Board of Public Safety, if the punishment involves less than five days of unpaid leave or suspension.

Buchanon did not return The Tribune’s message seeking comment Tuesday.

The captain “made comments … that were considered derogatory, and inappropriate,” Buchanon wrote in his notice to the board.

After reviewing an investigative report by the city’s Human Resources department, Buchanon wrote, he determined the captain had violated the department’s rules of conduct for officers. In particular, Buchanon pointed to a requirement that officers shall “abstain from violent, derogatory, and immoral language in addressing subordinates and issuing orders.”

The notice makes no mention of physical contact or blocking the firefighter’s escape.

Mayor James Mueller declined to be interviewed Tuesday.

“The City of South Bend and South Bend Fire Department take allegations of sexual harassment seriously and encourage employees to report any instances to Human Resources for investigation,” the mayor’s spokesman, Caleb Bauer, wrote in a statement, noting he was speaking for both Mueller and Buchanon. “Findings of sexual harassment will lead to disciplinary action. City officials have met with the firefighters who raised concerns in a recent letter and will take proactive steps necessary to ensure an inclusive and harassment-free workplace.”

The women wrote that there have been incidents “over the years” that could be considered “blatant” violations of department policy, including sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and inappropriate sexual acts in fire stations, “yet the majority of these incidents have gone unreported.”

“In one case, the female firefighter was made to feel it was her own fault and carried the burden of the harassment,” they wrote. “However, in most cases, the consensus has been, ‘Why bother reporting something when nothing will be done?'”

The women wrote that most firefighters point to “The Brotherhood” as the biggest draw to fire service.

“If the bond between firefighters is that of a brotherhood/sisterhood, then it would stand to reason that the administration could be considered the parental unit, setting examples for the body to follow,” they wrote.

The president of the Board of Public Safety, Luther Taylor Sr., a former fire chief, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Melissa Colpitts, the only female board member, declined to comment, saying she was “still getting information myself on this.”

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