CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) — Charlotte firefighters describe a culture of fear, retaliation and discrimination in nearly half a dozen lawsuits filed over the past five years.
Records obtained and reviewed by the WBTV investigative team show the long and stressful road faced by highway firefighters who find themselves on the wrong side of a disagreement with department management.
“I was just shaking, physically shaking and shaking,” Sylivia Smith-Phifer told WBTV in an interview.
Smith-Phifer is only four months away from her pinning ceremony where she was officially recognized for her promotion to battalion commander. But she says what was supposed to be a momentous occasion turned into a witch hunt to try and force her out of the department.
Her pinning ceremony led to a complaint against her which then led to an investigation the results of which she is still awaiting. She was interviewed by a third-party investigator for four hours, which she says caused physical and emotional stress that forced her to take time off work on the orders of her doctor.
“The whole ceremony took minutes and we are now into a five-month investigation,” said CFFA 660 president Tom Brewer.
Smith Phifer was promoted to battalion chief in 2020 after being turned down 14 times previously. In 2018, she filed a lawsuit against the city alleging discrimination after candidates who tested lower than her in the process were always promoted ahead of her.
His attorney said Smith-Phifer was ultimately promoted the first time the city used outside evaluators to judge the testing process.
After her promotion, Smith-Phifer became the first black female chief. His promotion ceremony was postponed to last November because of the Covid.
She wanted her mother to put on her new pin at the promotion ceremony.
“My mom has been my rock, she’s been by my side every step of the way,” Smith-Phifer said.
Smith-Phifer said she was told her mother couldn’t pin her down, that it had to be someone associated with the fire department. She asked if Charlotte’s first black female firefighter, Linda Lockhart, could pin her instead.
But she said just five minutes before the ceremony she was told that request had also been denied. There was apparently a specific policy on pinning that she was unaware of. Only Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald Johnson was pinning employees that day.
“So when my turn came I asked him very nicely, no one in the audience heard me, I whispered to him, ‘Excuse me, could you please place it in my hand? “Smith-Phifer told WBTV.
“He was like ‘No, I have to pin you’ and he started coming at me and I just put this hand up and said ‘Please just put it in my hand’ and he placed it in my hand.”
A week later, she said her division manager gave her a note for conduct unbecoming at the ceremony.
The write-up contains no specific details or claims. In the section requesting specific details of the alleged violation, the form only states “Behavior unbecoming of an officer while pinning promotional badge.” Upcoming witness interviews.
CFFA President Tom Brewer said a conduct unbecoming complaint with little to no detail is not uncommon in the history of the Charlotte Fire Department.
“Disgraceful conduct is kind of like a catch-all when they can’t find anything else to write to you about, it’s like, we’re just going to write it for disgraceful conduct,” Brewer said.
The city hired two outside investigators to conduct interviews, which led to Smith-Phifer’s four-hour interrogation.
Brewer says another 20 people were interviewed, asked to sign confidentiality forms and questioned on a wide range of topics. WBTV obtained an audio recording of Brewer’s conversation with the investigator in which the interviewer shed some light on his opinions on the investigation.
File: Investigator questions Tom Brewer regarding Sylivia Smith-Phifer complaint
“I understand that a very certain staff member, on stage, was very upset. He thought it was very disrespectful,” the interviewer said.
“Something very minor happened,” the interviewer said.
“Incredibly minor!” Brewer replied.
“So we agree it was a very minor incident,” the interviewer confirmed.
The interviewer asked a variety of questions and got off on tangents that had nothing to do with Smith-Phifer or even the Charlotte Fire Department.
“He says it’s like somebody got hurt, so they wrote you about it,” Brewer told WBTV.
“And here we are five months later, no report, we’re still investigating it, and we’re investigating a policy that doesn’t exist,” Brewer said.
Brewer said it’s not uncommon for firefighters to get pinned down by someone outside the department during a promotion ceremony.
“These are the tactics and antics of the Charlotte Fire Department. These are things they do to manipulate people, to bully people, to bully people,” Smith-Phifer said.
Smith-Phifer is one of half a dozen firefighters who have sued the city claiming the fire department either discriminated against or retaliated against firefighters in similar situations.
But many of the records that could shed light on the inner workings of firefighters have not been turned over, much to the chagrin of court officers.
In November, a U.S. magistrate sanctioned the city of Charlotte for failing to release court-ordered records in cases involving firefighters.
“Notwithstanding these eight prior orders, it is clear that many of the documents responding to plaintiffs’ discovery requests and under the Court’s orders have been lost or destroyed,” the magistrate wrote.
“In light of the Defendant’s gross non-compliance and considering the current status of the case, including the pending motions for summary judgment, the Court finds that additional penalties are appropriate.”
This isn’t the only example of unusual record-keeping policies WBTV has identified with the Charlotte Fire Department.
Last August, WBTV reported on the lack of completed recording applications filed with Charlotte Fire. At the same time, the department responded to a massive request for someone named OW Kenobi in just days.
Brewer and Smith-Phifer say they took those issues to city leadership, including City Manager Marcus Jones.
“The city manager is also the boss of the fire chief, and all this happens and he does nothing,” Smith-Phifer said.
“Do you feel like your boss can get away with it because people at the top don’t care or don’t care?” a WBTV reporter asked Smith-Phifer.
“It’s not that they don’t care, they just choose not to get involved.”
WBTV reached out to Fire Chief Reginald Johnson, City Manager Marcus Jones and Human Resources Director Sheila Simpson to ask about the Smith-Phifer investigation and the broader workplace issues outlined in the lawsuits against the city.
Instead, WBTV received an email response from City Attorney Patrick Baker.
“These claims relate directly to cases pending before the courts and/or administrative bodies. In the interests of fairness for all parties involved, I believe it is inappropriate to engage in public comment on these matters outside of established administrative and judicial processes,” Baker wrote.
The city has also denied the allegations made in the lawsuits against them.
Smith-Phifer says when she returned to work, she was immediately removed from the truck by her division manager. She says he told her he misses her looks. The physique she had already planned, but was told to go to a four-hour interview instead, for an investigation into a complaint filed against her.
“I feel like if I wasn’t here, standing here, in this presence, then they would erase me from the face of the firefighters,” Smith-Phifer said.
Just before this story was published on Monday, Smith-Phifer’s attorney, Meg Maloney, called WBTV and said Smith-Phifer had been called in for a random drug test.
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