As the San Francisco Fire Commission prepares to hear evidence regarding an alleged attack and cover-up by on-duty firefighters at a station in the spring, the firefighters’ union has raised concerns about how the department conducts its disciplinary investigations.
In a letter to the commission last month, Joe Moriarty, vice-president of the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, referred to what he called the "erosion of the [disciplinary] process."
In May, firefighters and medics at Station 32 in Bernal Heights failed to report a brawl that broke out between two firefighters. When news of the fight and subsequent cover-up reached the command staff, Chief Joanne Hayes-White recommended eight- to 10-day suspensions for the rank-and-file department members who failed to report the incident.
She also recommended that the acting lieutenant in charge of the station be suspended for 90 days and that the firefighter accused in the attack be fired.
Firefighter Bela Carreira, a five-year veteran, is accused of hitting first-year firefighter Joel Soto numerous times, breaking his jaw and knocking him out. The commission is due to start hearing evidence in that case Monday, to determine whether it agrees with Hayes-White that Carreira should be fired.
But the union says the investigative process, including the process into Carreira’s role and actions, is flawed because interviews are not always taped.
"Sometimes humans will put the important things down in their notes and then that is the investigation and not the full story," union President John Hanley said Wednesday.
Hanley pointed to an incident where a firefighter was recommended for a monthlong suspension based on interviews that were conducted over the phone. The interview was not transcribed or recorded.
"You’re not going to charge a guy $6,000 in court with an over-the-phone interview," he said.
"I think a face-to-face interview is a good thing, however, if it’s a fact-finding mission, I don’t think it’s a critical failure or flaw to conduct an interview over the telephone, if the party agrees to it," Hayes-White said Wednesday.
It is not clear whether interviews in Carreira’s investigation were taped or not, but Hayes-White said she talked to him before making her recommendation for his termination.
San Francisco has no citywide policy regarding the tape-recording or transcribing of interviews conducted in disciplinary investigations, department of human resources head Paul Conroy said Wednesday.
"It is a common practice with police officers because of the procedures articulated in the Police Officers Bill of Rights act," he said.
That state law outlines investigative procedures into police discipline.
Discipline in the Fire Department follows the same model as the Police Department under The City’s charter, with suspensions of more than 10 days being subject to a hearing in front of the commission. Firefighters, however, haveno equivalent to the Peace Officers Bill of Rights.
Hayes-White said department representatives are scheduled to sit down with representatives from the union next week to discuss the disciplinary process.