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Officials deny claims of racism at fire training academy

Allegations of racial discrimination against African-American cadets at the Erie County Fire Training Academy in Cheektowaga prompted members of two community organizations to confront officials at the facility on Friday.

City, fire and union officials, however, said investigations determined there was no merit to the charges.

Larry Williams, an African-American recruit currently on deferment, claims he was called a monkey by one of his instructors and told to go back to flipping burgers.

Burt Burton, another African-American recruit, said that after he was reprimanded a second time for not shaving, he was forced to shave his face without shaving cream and walk around all day with a razor blade in his mouth as punishment.

“They teamed up on, like, individual black candidates or students ... and targeted blacks they didn’t like,” said Williams.

He and Burton said they are among about a dozen black recruits who have retained attorneys to handle their cases against the city.

As an African-American himself, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said he takes accusations of racial discrimination seriously. However, this case — particularly accusations against one instructor at the fire academy — has no merit, Whitfield said.

“We’ve given it our due diligence, we believe. And we find no evidence of anything that rises to the level that’s being alleged,” said Whitfield.

The firefighter in question, an instructor at the academy and a 19-year veteran of the department, has been placed at the center of the allegations by three people who spoke to The Buffalo News.

Williams said it was the head instructor at the academy who called him a monkey during a training exercise.

“I was on a four-story window on the outside of a building and he was in the window screaming and ... he said, ‘Go back to flipping burgers. Go back to drug dealing.’ ... He was making a joke and he was frustrated, like he was disgusted,” Williams recalled in a phone interview Friday.

“If I want to be a firefighter and go all the way through, I need to follow ranks, but more harassment kept occurring and stuff like that,” he added.

Burton, on the other hand, did not make any specific allegations against that instructor. He said it was another instructor who intimidated him into performing a “dry shave” on himself in front of his classmates.

“They made me dry shave, which broke my whole face out,” said Burton.

He said he was then forced to keep a razor blade in his mouth for the rest of the day.

“By the time I took it out, basically, the day was over,” Burton said.

Burton said he removed it while taking part in physical training exercises and at other times when he thought no one was looking. He was kicked out of the program this past spring, and is no longer a recruit after having failed two tests.

“I was on my fifth week,” said Burton, who turned 21 in April.

Charley H. Fisher III, president of B.U.I.L.D. of Buffalo, accompanied by a half-dozen others from that organization and PUSH Buffalo, attempted to meet Friday with the instructor. He wanted to discuss grievances shared by other cadets, but the group was barred from entering the fire academy. Whitfield met with them outside the facility.

About a month ago, retired firefighter Rob Jackson did meet face-to-face with the instructor about allegations of name-calling, discrimination and hazing that were shared with him. That meeting turned violent.

“I went there to mitigate a situation because it had been brought to my attention that there was a lot racial discrimination,” said Jackson.

He said his 22 years of experience in the department lead him to believe there was merit to the complaints brought to him by the cadets.

“I wasn’t going out there to be confrontational. It’s all on tape,” Jackson said.

However, Jackson said that when he confronted the instructor with allegations he had heard from at least a dozen black recruits, the trainer became irate. He said they were separated by other firefighters, after which Jackson said he prepared to leave.

“As I was leaving, he started approaching me. So I slapped him in the face,” Jackson said. The retired firefighter said he was arrested by Cheektowaga police and “was charged with a violation, and that is still ongoing.”

Tom Barrett, president of Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters, spoke on the instructor’s behalf Friday, calling the allegations baseless, particularly one alleging the instructor has a swastika tattooed on his arm.

“He does have some tattoos, but there are no Nazi tattoos,” said Barrett. “Actually, they’re all firefighting stuff, I believe. A lot of the guys have firefighting tattoos.

“The instructor we’re talking about, I believe, is a 19-year veteran, one of the better firefighters in the department,” Barrett added.

Whitfield on Friday said surveys routinely given to cadets contained no complaints about racial animus at the academy.

“I have no specific allegations about anybody being called a monkey or anybody talking about selling drugs or anything like that,” Whitfield said.

He said the instructor may have said something to the effect of, “If you’re unsuccessful here, maybe you can go back to flipping burgers or maybe this isn’t for you and you should try flipping burgers,” which Whitfield characterized as an off-the-cuff-remark.

“That’s not a racist remark, I don’t think. It was not directed solely at minority candidates,” Whitfield said. “We did counsel and advise that that probably was insensitive ... and we shouldn’t be making those kinds of references.

“I’m an African-American. I’m very sensitive to the allegations here, not just because I’m an African-American, but because I believe all of us should have equal opportunity,” he added.