Consultants cite racism in North Carolina fire department

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Racism exists inside a North Carolina fire department, but a consulting group looking into allegations of discrimination by Black firefighters says it heard no complaints that the chief himself is racist.

The Charlotte-based WPR Consulting firm's 42-page report on the Winston-Salem Fire Department, based on conversations with more than 100 members of the department, was submitted to city leaders last week. It was prepared in response to a series of grievances filed by the department's Black firefighters in October alleging racism.

The Black firefighters formed a group, Omnibus, that called for Chief William “Trey” Mayo to be fired for failing to discipline white firefighters who, they said, have created a hostile work environment through in-person and social media comments.

“We are glad that the organization was able to come to the conclusion that racism does exist within the department,” Omnibus leader Thomas Penn said. “We're excited about it.”

The next move belongs to the city, Penn said, but Omnibus still insists on firing the chief and some of his captains.

“This festering wound needs to be cleaned out and that's what we're considering at this time, moving forward,” Penn said.

Winston-Salem Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne also praised the report's findings, as well as the participation of outside groups in the interview process.

“We do realize that we have work to do, and so, moving forward, we will start conducting training in the department in February,” Dequenne said. “We'll be doing train-the-trainer sessions so that we can continue that work, not only in the department and after the consultants leave, but eventually city-wide.”

The report found that both Black and white firefighters believe there is racism or discrimination in the department, while noting that some don't hold that view. It pins racial and cultural tensions in part on “the geographical demographics” of the employees, suggesting that Winston-Salem firefighters who live in rural areas outside the city aren't used to interacting with Black people.

As for the chief, a white man, the consultants said none of the more than 100 people interviewed in group sessions expressed a concern that he's racist.

Problems noted by the employees included discipline — they said the severity of penalties depends on the race of the person being reprimanded. Tensions also are driven by social media posts, which some perceived as First Amendment rights and others saw as racist. One female firefighter, for her part, said she had experienced gender discrimination.

The consulting firm called on the city to design and implement a plan encompassing diversity, equity and inclusion for all its employees. It said the fire department should increase awareness of diversity through employee engagement, and hold forums to hear community concerns. Officials also should strengthen the city's social media policy, the consultants said.