JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The suspension of an African-American Fire Marshall who used a racial epithet in front of an African-American subordinate is drawing mixed reaction from those who advocate for black firefighters in Jacksonville.
On Friday, Fire Marshall Chief Kevin Jones was suspended for 10 days for using the "N word" when referring to organizers of the Welcome to Rockville 2014 concert in April. According to a complaint filed by Engineer Stephen Crooms, "The chief said that we can't allow more than 20 thousand people in [Metropolitan] park, and if those N-----s try to put more than that in the park, then they will have to deal with me." The event, which featured headliners KORN and Rob Zombie, was a largely white-attended festival. Crooms said that the comment "was very offense to me as a black man because of all the racial issues going on within the JFRD."
Crooms was apparently referencing the myriad racial issues that have plagued the agency. JFRD is currently the target of several federal lawsuits stemming from allegations of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices, cases that have been joined by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the Department of Justice and the NAACP. A 2006 Jacksonville Human Rights Commission report also found a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans in the ranks.
First Coast News spoke to George Young, one of the founding members and former president of the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, an advocacy group for African American firefighters in Jacksonville. He said that while he personally disapproved of Jones' use of the word, he believed the controversy was less about race, and more about an employee/employer clash.
"When you are in charge of people you have to be careful what you say," said Young. "My position is that Kevin [Jones] spoke out of turn and in a way he shouldn't have spoken. But considering the whole process, 10 days [suspension] might be more than enough time." First Coast News was unable to reach Jones or Crooms for comment.
James Edwards, president of the Brotherhood, took a harder view.
"It doesn't matter if they're black or white, that is terrible word to use in the workplace," he said. Edwards suggested that 10 days might not be considered nearly enough punishment if the officer who uttered it was white. "I don't know what the reaction would have been if someone else of non-color had used that word."
Fire Chief Marty Senterfitt was unavailable Tuesday for comment. He told our news partner the Florida Times-Union that the slur was unacceptable in any circumstance, but also seemed to give Jones some leeway. "In order for us to work together in this mixed society we have in Jacksonville, we have to be a little more accepting and a little less hypersensitive," he said. "It would be so easy to get offended every single day. A diverse workforce means people are going to look differently from you, dress different from you and speak differently from you."
JFRD spokesperson Tom Francis said the punishment was appropriate to the offense, and that it was impossible to say if a white officer would have been punished differently.
"There are vagaries almost capricious elements brought into each case … each situation is different," Francis said. "But the final analysis is perfectly understood: That there will be no tolerance for any sort of discrimination – racial, gender, ethnicity, any kind of slur, any kind of parochial intolerance that's demonstrated within the department."