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SANDY BANKS

Discomfort with LAFD tattoo policy is more than skin-deep

September 27, 2008|SANDY BANKS

In June, I wrote about a new Los Angeles Fire Department policy requiring firefighters on duty to cover their tattoos, whether they're out on a call or in the station.

Department brass called it a simple "grooming" issue -- a way to restore public confidence in the professionalism of a department battered by harassment allegations.

But now the policy is shaping up as a test of the department's zero-tolerance stance toward harassment, and whether it applies to guys who are decorated like comic book characters.

Dan Stark has a web of tattoos on his arms, chest, neck and head. He's an eight-year veteran, the son of a firefighter, "with nothing in my file but commendations," who suddenly finds himself odd man out.

The day the policy took effect in April, he said someone left a copy of the edict on his station's kitchen table, next to a photo of a group of shrouded Muslim women, labeled with the names of five firefighters -- including him -- who are heavily tattooed.

Then he found his station locker covered with copies of the policy, he said. That meant someone had broken into it, or used the spare key kept in the captain's dorm. Later that day, he said, someone drew a picture of a mummy and captioned it "Stark's new uniform."

When he complained about the ribbing, one captain told him to quit griping and be a team player, he said. Another suggested he get some tattoos removed, as a sort of goodwill gesture. Another official said he risked ruining his career if he kept complaining. None apparently forwarded his complaints up the chain of command.

Stark shared with me his journal -- a meticulous recollection of jokes, insults and offhand comments that he said made him feel a pariah. "Why don't these members put themselves in my shoes," he wrote July 7. "All I want to do is go to work and do my job like before.

"What happened to zero tolerance? I guess that is not written for the tattooed firefighter."

That's a question being asked more and more as complaints trickle out of fire stations.

Most of the hundreds of tattooed firefighters find it easy to comply. Their uniform shirts cover their arms and chest. But about 50 are forced to wear turtlenecks, gloves and bandages.

"These guys feel helpless," Capt. Carlos Caceres said. "Some are totally surprised. They don't want to sue, they don't want money. They just want the hypocrisy to stop."

Caceres, the only captain with a body full of tattoos, has filed grievances challenging the policy and funneled firefighter complaints to investigators. "But it looks like business as usual," he said. As in, "We don't care unless you sue us."

At its heart, this isn't about tattoos, any more than the Tennie Pierce case was about a few bites of dog food.

It's about a broken discipline system and a continuing pattern of harassment and retaliation. It's about making "outsiders" uncomfortable in the fire station.

Pierce won a million dollars in his lawsuit not because he didn't like Alpo, but because he couldn't stomach the teasing and humiliation that followed, and because the department did nothing to stop it.

And his was one of several cases. The department -- and that means Los Angeles taxpayers -- has spent $16 million in the last few years paying off claims for hazing, discrimination and retaliation.

Last year, Douglas Barry was named chief to change all that. And firefighters I spoke with believe he's trying. He's visited every fire station, made his 97-page Discrimination Prevention Policy Handbook required reading, provided more training to station captains and tried to standardize the disciplinary process.

"He's very serious about this," Fire Commissioner Genethia Hayes said. "Every firefighter deserves to be in a work site where they can be comfortable. . . . . And that includes these guys with tattoos.

"They were hired, went through the drill tower, didn't get any breaks. We accepted them, and they're here and they shouldn't be subjected to harassment in the station."

If only we could hear Barry say that.

I don't know if Chief Barry is aware of the trouble brewing. None of the harassment complaints have yet made their way to the top. I tried to get Barry's views about it all this week, but his handlers wouldn't let me through. His chief of staff didn't return several calls. And Capt. Armando Hogan, the department's public information officer, said Barry was too busy attending community meetings and giving speeches to talk.

However, Barry did manage to find time Friday to hold a news conference at a fire station near the Van Nuys Airport to show off new firefighting aircraft.

By the time I got there, the cameras were gone and Barry was hunkered down with Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman. A firefighter -- with no visible tattoos -- went to let Barry know that I wanted to see him.

But suddenly, the chief was gone. The firefighter shrugged. "Somebody said they think they just saw him leave."

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that Barry's ducking me. He won't talk to firefighter union leaders either; they filed an unfair labor practice complaint last week over the department's continued refusal to meet over problems with the tattoo policy.

But I am surprised.

Barry was brought in, after all, to bust up the department's "code of silence" culture and restore fire station dignity.

Will it take a letter from a lawyer to make him listen?

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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