Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas racial bias Black and Latino members

Black and Latino firefighters in Los Angeles demand an investigation into allegations of racial bias and other wrongdoing.

The leaders of two organizations representing the Los Angeles Fire Department's Black and Latino members have requested a federal investigation into what they allege is widespread racial bias and other wrongdoing in the agency's treatment of employees.

The request for an investigation by the US attorney's office comes in the wake of a Times report this week alleging that a high-ranking white official in the LAFD received preferential treatment after being reported to be impaired by alcohol or drugs while on duty at the department's headquarters.

Assistant Chief Patrick Butler, president of the Latino firefighters group Los Bomberos, wrote in a letter to acting U.S. Attorney Tracy Wilkison on Wednesday that the case involving Chief Deputy Fred Mathis "is just one of many examples that we have come to know demonstrating a pattern and practice of corruption and potential civil rights violations within the Los Angeles Fire Department."

“We all desire and demand accountability and transparency from our elected officials and government services,” he wrote. “The men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department deserve nothing less.”

Wilkison's spokesperson stated that the US attorney's office had no comment on Butler's letter or whether the office would conduct such an investigation.

Ralph Terrazas, the fire chief, did not respond to an interview request. A spokeswoman for the department stated that the agency would cooperate with any federal investigation.

“Any member organization has the right to request a review by third-party agencies, with which the Department is committed to cooperating fully,” the statement stated.

“The Mayor is concerned about this incident and expects full cooperation from members of his administration in any investigation,” a spokesperson for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. The City Attorney, who has both civil and criminal prosecutorial authority, has already initiated an independent investigation into the matter, which the Mayor trusts to be swift and thorough.”

Butler and Fire Inspector Gerald Durant, president of the Stentorians, the Black firefighters union, had previously requested an investigation into how the department's chief handled the allegations against Mathis. Terrazas was informed Monday by colleagues that Mathis, the department's top administrative executive, was intoxicated at City Hall East on a day in May when the agency was battling the Palisades fire.

Three days passed without a complaint being filed against Mathis, according to records and interviews, and Terrazas did not respond to an email from The Times inquiring whether Mathis was required to submit to mandatory alcohol or drug testing. Additionally, according to documents obtained by The Times and interviews, a retroactive entry into Mathis' timekeeping record indicated that he was on sick leave on the day he was reported to be intoxicated while on duty.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas racial bias Black and Latino members
Chief Ralph Terrazas of the Los Angeles Fire Department has come under fire for his handling of allegations that a top commander appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs while on duty during the May Paradise fire.

Butler and Durant contended that the department's handling of the incident constituted a cover-up and may have violated civil rights and other laws.

Delia Ibarra, the commission's president, referred the initial request for an investigation to City Attorney Mike Feuer's office. Feuer, who declined to comment to The Times, then retained the services of a Pasadena law firm to conduct an investigation.

Butler and Robert Hawkins, the Stentorians' executive vice president, stated that bringing in the private firm would further insulate city officials from public scrutiny. They asserted that the LAFD is so ingrained in a culture of discrimination and cover-ups that only a comprehensive federal investigation could result in reforms.

Butler and Hawkins cited prior controversies as evidence that Terrazas and his executive team were unwilling to hold white firefighters to the same standards for discipline and promotion as nonwhite firefighters.

The assistant chief, who has testified for the department as an expert on disciplinary procedures, cited an incident in which a white firefighter was allowed to remain on the job despite being accused of punching a Black detainee in the head while he was restrained on a gurney and tightening a towel around his face, causing him to scream, "I can't breathe."

Hawkins cited an instance of harsher treatment in which a Black firefighter was forced to resign after falsely accusing him of lying on a document stating he attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The firefighter was required to attend the meetings as a result of a previous DUI arrest.

Six Black employees of the Fire Prevention Bureau, which is responsible for conducting safety inspections and investigating the causes of fires, sued the city last month, alleging that the LAFD is run by a "good old white boys club" that discriminates in promotion decisions. Additionally, a Times report published this month examined complaints that Garcetti has failed to keep his promises to significantly increase the ranks of female firefighters and overhaul a department where women and nonwhite firefighters report feeling bullied.

Tuesday, a day after The Times reported on the allegations against Mathis, the president of the Fire Commission wrote to Butler, expressing her understanding of his "concern about disciplinary issues being disproportionately applied to people of color." That is a concern that I personally take very seriously. If there is a racial component to that, I want to know about it.”

Ibarra stated that she would request a report from the department's independent assessor on "all disciplinary cases involving substance abuse, looking at the racial angle and how the department dealt with it, as well as how the department applied discipline."

Ibarra also expressed her own frustrations with her work on the commission in the letter: “I am deeply concerned that, over the last year or so, people have not been listening to one another and respecting the diverse experiences that all of us as people of color (and women) have in the department,” she wrote. “Speaking for myself, as a Latina woman from a working-class background, I face a level of scrutiny that males, as well as white people and wealthy white people, do not. Yes, even as the head of the Fire Commission, this occurs.”

She declined to comment in an interview on the calls for a federal investigation and stated that she supports Terrazas as a "good leader."

Garcetti's office denied The Times' request for numerous documents relating to the allegations against Mathis, a decision that open-government experts said violated the California Public Records Act.

The Times obtained copies of Mathis's complaint and timekeeping record from a department source.

Mathis is responsible for responding to "major emergencies and other incidents as the head of an Incident Management Team," as well as conducting "pre-disciplinary hearings and making appropriate recommendations to the Fire Chief regarding corrective action," according to the agency's website. According to city records, he earns more than $350,000 per year.

According to the complaint, which was filed electronically, "on or about Tuesday, May 18, 2021, Battalion Chief Stacy Gerlich observed Chief Deputy Fred Mathis exhibiting signs of intoxication while on duty at City Hall East." Additionally, it is alleged that Chief Mathis admitted to Chief Gerlich that he had consumed alcohol.”

Gerlich did not respond to requests for an interview.

According to Assistant Chief Jaime Moore, another employee informed him that Mathis appeared to be intoxicated. Moore stated that he visited Terrazas' office sometime during that week to relay the information, and the chief "assured me that he would handle it."

The Times obtained a copy of Mathis' timekeeping record, which indicates that he was on sick leave on May 18 and 19, according to entries made on May 22.

The LAFD has a long history of being accused of racial and gender bias. In 1974, a federal consent decree mandated that nonwhite individuals make up at least half of the department's new hires each year. They made up less than 5% of the firefighting force at the time.

The decree was in effect until 2002, when the percentage of nonwhite employees reached 50%.

Today, a department spokeswoman said, approximately 54% of the agency's approximately 3,700 firefighters and civilian employees are nonwhite. However, women make up only 3.5 percent of the firefighter ranks, and complaints about racial bias in hiring have persisted.

In 2013, after Chief Brian Cummings resigned under duress, Garcetti conducted a nationwide search for a replacement against the backdrop of mounting legal claims alleging agency bias. As part of one legal settlement, the city agreed to have the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission conduct a more thorough review of the LAFD's anti-discrimination training program for firefighters and supervisors.

Garcetti stated at the time that one of his "priorities in bringing new leadership" to the department was "bringing much-needed cultural change." The following year, Terrazas was appointed chief.