Acting Capt. John Darmanin (Courtesy photo)

SF Fire Department accused of retaliating against captain for speaking out

The head of the San Francisco Fire Department’s Arson Task Force who spoke out against staffing shortages and a backlog of open investigations, prompting disciplinary charges to be filed against him, is set to be reassigned.

Acting Capt. John Darmanin called his reassignment a “demotion” — retaliation for the comments he made at three Fire Commission meetings, and a pair of complaints he filed with the California Department of Justice and San Francisco Police Department.

The complaints centered around a fire investigator assigned to the Arson Task Force without a background check, giving him access to confidential and personal information about the public, Darmanin said. The investigator was removed after the complaints were lodged.

The Fire Department denied allegations of retaliation. “That’s absolutely not the case, retaliation would be an unethical move and that’s not how this fire department operates,” said Lt. Mindy Talmadge, a spokesperson for the department.

Talmadge said Darmanin is an acting captain and former fire investigator Attica Bowden will take his position as permanent captain. Darmanin said he was notified Oct. 13 of reassignment to the Plan Check section of the department, where he previously served for 10 years, but Talmadge said he’s not yet been reassigned. He is currently on leave.

“The entire bureau of fire investigation has been sort of realigned, positions have been added and the administration was aware that the number of open fire investigations over the last year and a half had grown five fold,” Talmadge said. “That was a concern and so there is a new captain.”

But Darmanin tells a different story. The reason for the growing backlog of open fire investigations is the staffing shortage that persisted throughout and before his leadership. Darmanin was the sole supervisor of a unit that was short several investigators, he said.

To make up for the staffing shortages, the previous captain cut corners on reports by signing them without reading. “What I found out real quick was my predecessor was just rubber-stamping everything,” Darmanin said.

No investigations were botched because of the short cuts, Darmanin said, but he expected a higher-level of quality control when running the unit. That resulted in an increase from about 50 open fire investigations in June 2014, when he became acting captain, to the more than 400 current open fire investigations.

The realization that he could not control the speed of the quality of the fire investigations without proper staffing prompted Darmanin to be outspoken at three Fire Commission meetings, including one in July where he complained the department had not responded to his request for more investigators and a lieutenant.

Later that month, internal disciplinary charges for insubordination and acts detrimental to the department were filed against him, according to Darmanin. The charges are confidential and could not be independently verified by the San Francisco Examiner.

The charges, which are still pending an outcome, are in relation to his comments and the complaints he submitted to the California Department of Justice and SFPD.

Commission President Andrea Evans could not comment on Darmanin’s reassignment or confirm the disciplinary charges against him, but said he’s “by no means the only person” to be outspoken.

“We would not tolerate any retaliation for a person speaking out,” Evans said, noting that Darmanin was instrumental in persuading the department to include fire investigator positions in its budget.

In an ironic turn of events for Darmanin, the department has now filled all of the positions he rallied for: four more fire investigators, bringing the unit total to nine, and one lieutenant to help supervise. The lieutenant was assigned the day he went on leave.

“The backlog will now slowly be relieved, but make no mistake the relief of the backlog is because we have a lieutenant which is a new position,” said Darmanin. “The backlog will be diminished, the appearance will be because [I’m not there.]”

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