LOS ANGELES – The city's fire chief announced his retirement Friday amid a furor over a black firefighter's claim that he suffered racial discrimination when colleagues spiked his spaghetti with dog food — an incident others called a firehouse prank.
Chief William Bamattre, whose predecessor also suddenly left a decade ago during a racially charged crisis over the same issue, told Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a letter that he will step down on Jan. 1.
In a statement from his office, the chief did not directly address the controversy but said he was "very proud of the dedication, courage and extraordinary commitment and efforts of our firefighters."
Bamattre had been given charge of the 3,900-member department in the mid-1990s with a mandate to stamp out racism and sexism.
The city controller had released an audit almost a year ago that concluded discrimination, hazing and harassment persisted in the department despite a zero-tolerance policy.
But the issue blew up last month after the City Council approved a $2.7 million settlement to firefighter Tennie Pierce, who claimed racial discrimination.
A department investigation had suggested it was a prank prompted by Pierce's references to himself as the "Big Dog." The council approved the settlement on advice of the city attorney before photos surfaced showing the Pierce himself engaged in crude firehouse hazing.
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.
Mayoral spokesman Matt Szabo confirmed Villaraigosa received the letter and scheduled a news conference later in the day.
To outgoing United Firefighters of Los Angeles President Pat McOsker, the Pierce case is the symptom of a larger problem — a heavy-handed management 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."