LOS ANGELES (Dec. 2) - The city's fire chief announced his retirement Friday amid a racially charged furor involving a black firefighter who was served spaghetti mixed with dog food.
Chief William Bamattre, 54, said the scandal had "political implications beyond the scope of the Fire Department."
"I have become the focus of the debate and that is to the detriment of the LAFD," he said. He planned to step down Jan. 1.
The firefighter who was fed the spaghetti claimed that it was racial discrimination and that he was harassed after reporting it. But other firefighters insisted it was an ordinary firehouse prank with no racist intent. A department investigation suggested the prank was prompted by the way firefighter Tennie Pierce called himself the "Big Dog" during a volleyball game.
Bamattre, whose predecessor left abruptly a decade ago during a similar crisis, was given charge of the 3,900-member department in the mid-1990s with a mandate to stamp out racism and sexism.
But the city controller released an audit almost a year ago that concluded discrimination, hazing and harassment persisted in the department despite a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior.
Pierce, 51, said his 20-year career was destroyed after he broke a code of silence and spoke out against the spaghetti prank. The department disciplined two white captains and one Latino firefighter.
The issue blew up last month after the City Council approved a $2.7 million settlement to Pierce.
The council approved the settlement on advice of the city attorney before photos surfaced showing that Pierce himself engaged in crude firehouse hazing, smearing mustard and dumping water on colleagues.
The mayor vetoed the settlement, and a council majority refused to override it despite an emotional plea by Pierce, backed by black community leaders. Pierce's lawsuit is now headed to trial.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Bamattre's departure was "a joint decision."
"It's not about changing the leadership at the top - it's about changing the culture," he said. In the search for a successor, the mayor said he would look for "a change agent."
Pat McOsker, president of the city's firefighter union, said the Pierce case reflected a heavy-handed management style that has emphasized discipline over addressing problems in departmental culture.
"As of right now, morale is very low. People are pitted against one another, broken up into camps," McOsker said. "We need a culture in the Fire Department that values subordinate employees, instead of devaluing them."
Bamattre, a firefighter for 31 years, moved up from battalion chief to chief in 1995 when predecessor Donald Manning suddenly resigned. In his decision to step down, Manning cited "false allegations and innuendoes" about claims of discrimination in the department.