Philadelphia Firefighters Say Commissioner Reacts to Philly Mag Feature on Department

Racial tension grows over dismissal of African-American firefighter this week.

The complexities of racial politics inside the Philadelphia Fire Department may have deepened early this week with the firing of Deputy Chief Robert Wilkins. Wilkins makes an appearance in “Why Did No One Save Jack?,” a feature I wrote for April’s Philadelphia magazine. In that story, which addresses the 2011 suicide of fireman Jack Slivinski Jr., the department’s troubled racial history acts as both backdrop and foreground.

Prior to this week’s notice of dismissal, Wilkins, an African-American, had received a 48-hour suspension for failure to report to the fire department administration that he had been arrested in Bucks County and charged with a simple assault against his wife. In “Why Did No One Save Jack?,” white firefighters complained the punishment was more lenient than what some white firefighters had suffered for similar or lesser infractions.

In March, Wilkins pleaded guilty to summary offenses of disorderly conduct and harassment in the assault case. Yesterday, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers fired him in response to the guilty plea.

The claim now flying around the department is that Ayers, stinging from accusations that appeared in Philly Mag that he has favored African-American firefighters, used the Wilkins case to demonstrate he can be tough on fellow African-Americans. “I have other members who committed similar infractions and not faced such a severe penalty,” says Bill Gault, president of Local 22, the firefighters’ union. “Wilkins is a scapegoat for the story.”

Ayers declined to comment, and it’s hard to blame him. He faces criticism for punishing people too harshly—or not enough.

“Wilkins is a fall guy,” says one firefighter, who requested anonymity. “Now the fire department administration can say, ‘See? We’re tough on everybody.’”

The fallout is that the union itself is facing some turmoil. As Gault describes it, he and Local 22 are now stuck in a very difficult place: A majority of his white firefighters, according to a report produced by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, believe discipline is being handled in a racially biased fashion. He needs to represent their concerns, which means talking about perceived disparities. But he also has to offer equal protection to the union’s African-American firefighters. So the union itself is divided.

According to Eric Fleming, president of the Valiants, an association for Philly’s African-American firefighters, “A lot of my members are upset. They think the union has pushed this story about racial disparity at the expense of its African-American members. They’re wondering if they should continue paying dues to a union that doesn’t protect them.”

There does seem to be ample common ground available to the unions’ members, however, should they choose to look for it. Local 22 has vowed to fight for Wilkins’s job, and several union members told me they predict he will be back on the force within a year. But more than that, the city’s white and black firefighters also seem to want the same things—including a transparent and fair disciplinary process. The way discipline is handled now is highly subjective, especially in comparison to the city police department. Police are given a rulebook for their conduct, listing potential infractions and associated punishments. The fire department rule book lists only infractions—meaning the commissioner can mete out any punishment he likes.

Commissioner Lloyd Ayers has said he is moving toward greater transparency, including listing the penalties for some infractions. But he also insisted that he and future commissioners need to retain flexibility to make their own judgments.

It’s a recipe Gault thinks will only generate further turmoil in the future. “All we want is fairness for everybody,” says Gault. “And what we need at this point is greater transparency from the administration. And consistency. So people know what to expect.”

“I do agree,” says Fleming, “that a set rulebook would eliminate a lot of complaints.”

Fleming, however, also sounds a sour note, born of working in a department where race has been a contentious issue for centuries. “But, you know,” he says, “there’s always something.”