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Charlotte firefighters describe culture of retaliation from leadership

Charlotte firefighters describe a culture of fear, retaliation and discrimination in nearly half a dozen lawsuits that have been filed over the last five years.
A firefighter wanted her mom to pin her during a promotion but was turned down by her boss. How that ceremony turned into a misconduct allegation.
Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 6:33 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte firefighters describe a culture of fear, retaliation and discrimination in nearly half a dozen lawsuits that have been filed over the last five years.

Records obtained and reviewed by the WBTV Investigates Team show the long and stressful road firefighters must face who end up on the wrong side of a disagreement with leadership of the department.

“I was just trembling, physically trembling and shaking,” Sylivia Smith-Phifer told WBTV during an interview.

Smith-Phifer is only four months removed from her pinning ceremony where she was officially recognized for her promotion to Battalion Chief. 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 which she is still awaiting the results of. She was interrogated by a third-party investigator for four hours, which she says led to physical and emotional stress that has forced her to take time off work under order from her doctor.

“The whole ceremony took minutes and now we’re into a five-month investigation,” CFFA 660 President Tom Brewer said.

Smith Phifer was promoted to Battalion Chief in 2020 after being turned down 14 times prior. In 2018 she filed a lawsuit against the city alleging discrimination after candidates who tested lower than her during the process were still promoted ahead of her.

Her attorney said Smith-Phifer was finally promoted during the first time the city used external assessors to judge the testing process.

After her promotion, Smith-Phifer became the first black female chief officer. Her promotion ceremony was delayed until last November because of Covid.

She wanted her mother to put on her new pin during the promotion ceremony.

“My mother has been my rock, she has been by my side the whole way,” Smith-Phifer said.

Smith-Phifer said she was told her mom could not pin her, 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 was denied too. There was apparently a specific policy on pinning that she did not know about. Only Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald Johnson was pinning employees that day.

“So when my turn came, I asked him really 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 towards me and I just held this hand up and I said ‘Please just place it in my hand’ and so he placed it in my hand.”

One week later she said her division chief handed her a write-up for conduct unbecoming during the ceremony.

The writeup doesn’t contain any details or specific allegations. In the section the asks for specific details of the alleged violation the form only says “Behavior unbecoming an officer during the promotional badge pinning. Witness interviews forthcoming.”

Smith-Phifer's misconduct form contains no details about the allegations made against her but...
Smith-Phifer's misconduct form contains no details about the allegations made against her but it's been the catalyst for a multi-month investigation.(WBTV)

CFFA President Tom Brewer said a conduct unbecoming complaint containing little to no details is not uncommon in the history of the Charlotte Fire Department.

“The conduct unbecoming is kind of like a catch all when they can’t find something else to write you up for it’s like, we’ll just write him up for conduct unbecoming’,” Brewer said.

The city hired two outside investigators to conduct interviews, which led to Smith-Phifer’s four-hour interrogation.

Brewer says 20 other people have been interviewed, asked to sign confidentiality forms, and questioned about a wide array 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 interviews Tom Brewer related to Sylivia Smith-Phifer Complaint

“I understand that a very certain member of the command staff up on the stage, was very upset. He thought it was very disrespectful,” the interviewer said.

“Something very minor happened,” the interviewer said.

“Incredibly minor!” Brewer responded.

“So, we agree this was a very minor incident,” the interviewer concurred.

The interviewer asked a variety of questions and went off on tangents that had nothing to do with Smith-Phifer or even the Charlotte Fire Department.

“He says that it’s like someone got their feelings hurt so they wrote you up over this,” 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 have someone outside of the department pin them during a promotion ceremony.

“These are the tactics and the antics of the Charlotte Fire Department. These are things that they do to manipulate people, to intimidate people, to bully people,” Smith-Phifer said.

Smith-Phifer is one of a half-dozen firefighters who have sued the city claiming the fire department has either discriminated or retaliated against firefighters in similar situations.

But many of the records that might shed light on the inner workings of the fire department have not been turned over, much to the chagrin of court officers.

In November, A US Magistrate Judge sanctioned the City of Charlotte for failing to release records that had been ordered by the court in cases involving the firefighters.

“Notwithstanding these eight prior Orders, it is clear that numerous documents responsive to Plaintiffs’ discovery requests and within the scope of the Court’s Orders have either been lost or destroyed,” the magistrate wrote.

“In light of Defendant’s egregious non-compliance and considering the present posture of the case, including pending motions for summary judgment, the Court concludes that additional sanctions are appropriate.”

It’s not the only instance of unusual record keeping policies WBTV has identified with the Charlotte Fire Department.

Last August, WBTV reported on the lack of fulfilled record requests filed with Charlotte Fire. At the same time, the department fulfilled a massive request for someone named O.W. Kenobi in just a matter of days.

Brewer and Smith-Phifer say they have taken these issues to city leadership including City Manager Marcus Jones.

“The city manager is also the fire chief’s boss, and all of this is going on and he’s doing nothing,” Smith-Phifer said.

“Does it feel to you like your boss can get away with this because the people at top just don’t care or aren’t paying attention?” 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 HR Director Sheila Simpson to ask about Smith-Phifer’s investigation and the larger 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 matters pending before the courts and/or administrative agencies. In the interest of fairness to all parties involved, I believe it to be inappropriate to engage in public commentary regarding those matters outside of the established administrative and judicial processes,” Baker wrote.

The city has also denied the allegations made in the lawsuits filed against them

Smith-Phifer says when she returned to work, she was immediately pulled off the truck by her division chief. She says he told her that she missed her physical. The physical that she already had scheduled, 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 right here in this presence, then they would just wipe me off the face of the fire department,” Smith-Phifer said.

Just before publication of this story on Monday, Smith-Phifer’s attorney Meg Maloney called WBTV and said Smith-Phifer was called in for a random drug test.

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