Coweta fire department dogged by race issues

Internal reviews find racially insensitive remarks and a firehouse with offensive material
The 2022 recruit class of the Coweta County Fire Department poses at their August graduation in this photo posted to the department's Facebook page.

Credit: Coweta County

Credit: Coweta County

The 2022 recruit class of the Coweta County Fire Department poses at their August graduation in this photo posted to the department's Facebook page.

When news broke last week that a member of the Coweta County Fire Department’s 2022 recruit class had ties to a white supremacist organization, it was like the final piece of a puzzle fell into place for several of the department’s Black employees, according to interviews and records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One of the handful of Black recruits who trained with Hunter Forsyth, a rookie firefighter fired by Coweta County a day after the allegations became public, told the AJC he was not shocked that a white supremacist could pass unnoticed in what he described as a department plagued by a toxic racial environment.

“They made so many uncomfortable racist comments. We actually went to HR several times to report it and we never heard anything back on it. We were just told to get over it,” said the former recruit, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals because he’s still employed by the department.

Interviews with department employees, who also asked not to be named, and documents obtained by the AJC through a public records request show the recruit class struggled with race issues that were made worse when the department’s white leadership got involved.

The documents show minority recruits took their complaints to the county’s head of human resources after Fire Chief Robby Flanagan ostensibly tried to ease tensions last spring, but made them worse. During a meeting in April in which the department leaders were trying to build team camaraderie among the recruits, the chief told the group he didn’t like responding to calls where the victims are Black women because they “are hard to deal with cause they don’t (shut) up,” according to documents.

In the personnel investigation that followed the April gathering, Flanagan defended his comments saying he was “discussing how different people ... react under stress and how important it is that everyone works together regardless of those differences,” according to a summary report of the incident.

In the April meeting, according to two people present, a white fire lieutenant told the recruit class that his father had been in the Ku Klux Klan. The lieutenant reportedly said he was not sensitive to the problems of racism until his father used the n-word to describe the Black friend of the lieutenant’s son.

One Black recruit who was at the meeting said the admission from a superior officer made them feel uneasy. It was shocking, the recruit said.

“You are looking at other people to see if they are reacting to the statement,” he said.

In summary report about the meeting, the chief said it didn’t go the way he had hoped.

“Chief Flanagan was disappointed that the whole point of the class gathering was clearly not achieved and in fact, may have been made worse,” the report states.

The report did not recommend any further discipline for the comments, but it did recommend diversity training for the entire department. Eight months later, that training has yet to occur, although county Human Resources Director Patricia Palmer said in-person training is planned for the coming year.

In an email sent Friday, Flanagan told the AJC that the department takes allegations of harassment seriously and has taken steps to improve its approach to racial discrimination and sexism, including debriefing sessions with members of the recruiting class conducted by the department’s new deputy chief and an anonymous survey to allow them to express their concerns.

“There was no mention in either the meeting or the anonymous survey of any racial issues or harassment,” he said. “Since this class has now been on line for about four months, we have begun meeting with every member of the recruit class to learn about their experiences, what has gone well and what has not.”

Flanagan also said the department has adjusted its process to better screen applicants for future recruiting classes and “restructured the recruit class to help build camaraderie within the team early in the program.”

‘Embarrassed and demoralized’

Coweta County, about 35 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta, is a rapidly-growing community with about 150,000 residents. Roughly 75 percent are white and 19 percent are Black.

Its most recent fire department recruiting class graduated in August and reflected these demographics. Of the 15 recruits, three were Black.

As part of the human resources investigation, Palmer solicited written statements from every fire recruit at the April meeting where the chief made his comments. The statements from minority recruits each recalled Flanagan’s statement in nearly identical words.

“It was said that ‘Black women are hard to deal with because they won’t shut up,’” one Black recruit wrote, adding, “I felt humiliated, embarrassed and demoralized.”

Another Black recruit wrote that the moment was “cringy” and that Black recruits didn’t know how to deal with it.

“We bottled our feelings and moved forward with the program,” the recruit wrote. “These feelings, feelings of embarrassment and shame, can’t seem to go away.”

The statements from the white recruits were more varied. While some recalled the statement with the same clarity, others either wrote that they didn’t hear the statement or that they did not think it was out of line.

One of the longer statements came from Forsyth, who was fired last week after a left-wing activist group published its report linking him to the far-right group White Lives Matter, which advocates for a whites-only government. In his written statement, Forsyth recalled that one of the chief’s comments “was on how different races react to different scenarios and situations.”

“The story elaborates on how African American women are more talkative and willing to assert their opinion and may or may not listen to EMS or fire personnel,” Forsyth wrote. “Many other stories were shared and I feel that Class 739 learned a lot of valuable lessons that day.”

A hostile atmosphere

According to internal documents and several employees who spoke to the AJC, the racial tensions in the recruit class began following a bus ride back from the county’s 911 center in April when a near accident sparked an argument in which white recruits allegedly told the minority recruits to “shut the hell up.” When the recruits returned, the fire captain in charge of training, who is Black, called a group of Black and Latino recruits into a private meeting and allegedly accused them of being racist against the white recruits.

One member of the group said the captain “got all up in (their faces) and was like, ‘I know what it is, you’re racist. You can’t stand for a white man to talk to you that way.’” After that, the minority recruits said they felt monitored and were repeatedly accused of being racists by superiors in front of the white recruits.

“After that, they started treating us differently,” said another minority recruit who was not in the meeting but felt non-white recruits were discriminated against following the bus incident.

Palmer said that department leaders misunderstood the nature of the incident, which escalated the tensions.

“The leaders of the class perceived a racial issue between the two groups,” she said.

Coweta County Fire Chief Robby Flanagan faced allegations that he made racially offensive and demeaning remarks to a gathering of fire recruits in April 2022.

Credit: Coweta County website

icon to expand image

Credit: Coweta County website

When Flanagan made his comments stereotyping Black women and men, he was trying to reinforce to the class that everyone needed to be treated fairly, Palmer said.

In her investigative report, Palmer wrote that the fire chief “made a bad choice of words that elicited a negative response from several recruits” and as a result the offended recruits did “not hear or appreciate any context or explanation.”

Palmer noted in her report that the sole Black woman in the recruit class “was particularly embarrassed.”

“The ‘system’ worked in that (the female recruit) mentioned this to a coworker and it was immediately referred up the chain of command and then to me,” she wrote.

In her report, Palmer recommended that Flanagan personally apologize to the woman and share with the entire department “how we all make mistakes and say things we shouldn’t and we all have things we can learn.”

Frank Zerunyan, a governance professor at the University of Southern California School of Public Policy, said the problems apparent in the Coweta County Fire Department point to a failure of leadership.

“It starts at the top, and I am not surprised that the African-American (and other minority) folks are feeling the way they feel in the fire department,” he said.

He said leaders of first responder agencies, similar to the the military, need to instill a belief in the mission of the organization that transcends race, gender or other distinctions. But that’s not simply being blind to those distinctions, he said.

“Race and other things matter in the sense that you want to be inclusive,” he said. “If you want your community to buy in to the organization that services them … it needs to represent properly the community.”

More problems

Palmer told the AJC the complaints of systemic racism in the fire department are “obviously very disappointing.” She said her investigation was limited in scope to the comments made by Flanagan, rather than more broadly about allegations of racism in the department.

Palmer was called upon in June to investigate another complaint in the fire department lodged by a Black firefighter regarding a photograph hung in the fires station in Moreland, a few miles south of Newnan — Coweta’s largest city and its county seat. The photo, which white firefighters had picked up from site of an accident, was a selfie featuring two Black men in what was interpreted as a romantic relationship.

According to the investigative report, the photo was brought back to the fire station and decorated with sexually explicit stickers and writing. The firefighter who filed the complaint described the display as discriminatory and “inappropriate in many ways.” The firefighter wrote in his statement that he took his complaint to a senior leader in the fire department that he trusted, rather than his immediate supervisor.

“I heard a lot of things about Coweta County and its sexism and racism, so I pretty much skipped the chain of command,” he wrote. “I did not want to bring this situation to the wrong person, where they may laugh at me and the picture as soon as I turned away.”

During her investigation, Palmer discovered that a sexually explicit cartoon and a sex toy had also been seen in the firehouse. The investigation resulted in the termination of one firefighter, the demotion of a lieutenant, and one-day suspensions of three other lieutenants.