By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“We push the envelope. We do it at the scene of emergencies, and we do it off duty,” says Captain Brian Allen, who, despite his name, is Mexican-American and worked with Pierce at Station 61. “We do a lot of extreme physical activities, and at work you can’t try to shut that stuff off. We can’t be timid. You don’t want a busload of accountants at a fire scene.”
As Allen notes, “When average normal people are confronted with a fire, they are running away. We are running toward it.”
Banned in the 1940s, hazing has persisted, and even as recently as the ’70s, black firefighters were singled out. After the stations were integrated in 1955, black firefighters weren’t allowed to talk to whites at work, or eat at the same time as whites. One station sported a kitchen-door sign reading: “White adults.” Black firefighters were usually assigned the bed next to the locker room or toilet, and in one case, firefighters put human feces on the pillow of a black firefighter.
The federal government intervened in 1974, and the city agreed to a federal consent decree — which required that half of all new recruits be black, Latino or Asian. The decree was lifted in 2001.
Today the 3,600-member department is one of the nation’s most diverse large urban forces: 53 percent white, 29 percent Latino, 12 percent black and 5 percent Asian — slightly ahead of San Francisco’s, at 55 percent white, and far more diverse than Houston’s, at 63 percent white, Chicago’s, at 69 percent white, or the least diverse, New York’s, at about 90 percent white.
While firefighters defy efforts to end hazing, they have their own internal unwritten rule: Don’t mess with a co-worker’s food, family or equipment. But they don’t always obey even that rule. Firefighters have eaten green napkins, served in salad like lettuce, and been tricked into downing bottles of Tabasco. One firefighter at Station 14 in South Los Angeles in the late 1970s made a lemon meringue pie out of sawdust and shaving cream, using empty Marie Callender’s boxes and tins for realism.
Says Captain Larry Schneider of Station 50 in Atwater Village, that prankster “spent two hours making the pies out of sawdust [for the flaky crust] and shaving cream, and put it in the fridge. Sucker after sucker would go there and grab a bowl of lemon meringue pie. It was beautiful. Once they took a bite, they would put it back in the fridge and wait for the next sucker.”
More recently, John Patchett, a white colleague of Pierce’s at Station 5, was tricked into eating cat food after he made a derogatory comment about a colleague’s cat. It wasn’t done entirely in fun. The crack about his colleague’s beloved pet “offended him,” Patchett recalls. “When I had tuna salad that night, I had a bit different tuna salad than everybody else.”
Dog food has also been slipped into firefighters’ food before. In the early 1970s, white firefighter Francis Brown was tricked into eating a dog-food meat loaf after he repeatedly hogged the leftovers — a no-no behavior known as “maggot messing.”
“He was halfway through [his meat loaf] when the guys started barking,” says Schneider. “He found the [dog food] cans on the window. He then sat back down and finished eating the whole meat loaf.”
A white captain, Doug Close, got tricked into eating dog food in the 1980s after he refused to chip in for daily meals, then got caught chowing down. “For the rest of the man’s career, they would buy a can of dog food and clean it out and would put all his pencils and pens in it,” says Schneider. “He would just shrug it off. It went on for 10 years . . . Most firemen know that the worst thing you can do is complain.”
Allen, who believes the horror expressed by city officials over hazing is a crock, says that until October of 2004, Pierce had been a participant in full-on hazing and never ratting out a fellow firefighter.
“My first reaction?” says Allen, about hearing of Pierce’s lawsuit. “Tennie Pierce is involved in this? There is no way ‘T’ would push it. He wouldn’t say it’s race. He is a big “turdster” himself, and he would be the last guy. We all thought the same way. He knows it isn’t racist.”
Yet just before Thanksgiving of 2004, a little over a month after he ate dog food, Pierce told Station 5 Chief Coleman he wanted disciplinary actions against Burton, Tohill and Arevalo, the slight Latino whom he’d compared to the size of his craps. He asked to be transferred away from Station 5 — and to see a psychiatrist.
He contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reported the incident to the city’s Office of Discrimination Complaint Resolution and hired an attorney, later switching to Genie Harrison. After the dog-food prank, Pierce rarely worked again — only about 40 days over the next two years.
Employment attorney Lee T. Paterson, an author of a book on employee and labor law who is not involved in the case, says Pierce’s behavior fits a classic approach for building a case in court. Paterson says, “The more the person is injured or damaged, the more money you will make: Pierce gets sick from dog food, takes Tums, and he is back to his normal self and comes back to work. What is that worth? Not much. But if he is sick? His wife testifies he hasn’t had sex? He can’t go back to work? There is an advantage for the attorney and the plaintiff to have a lot of damage or at least to talk about a lot of damage. The second stop is the plaintiff’s lawyer’s office, the next stop is a psychiatrist.”