Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing promised Friday that disciplinary action will come against department personnel who were involved in the placement of a Black figurine hanging on a wall at a downtown fire station back in February.
“Our firefighter made an egregious mistake,” said Rohlfing during a news conference Thursday.
“It is time to send a strong signal. This behavior will not be tolerated.”
Rohlfing said that the department is still implementing internal reprimands against individuals involved in the incident. They will have seven days to respond before discipline is handed out.
“We have an obligation to our members to make sure everyone receives their due process rights during the investigation and after the investigation,” he explained.
On February 13, a firefighter discovered the Black figurine in the street, according to Rohlfing. The figurine had a pink ribbon tied around the neck, with curled ends to the ribbon.
Rohlfing said that the firefighter put the figurine in his pocket took it to the station, showed it to other firefighters and asked them if they knew what the figurine was.
Then the firefighter tied the loose ends together and put it on a bulletin board, according to Rohlfing.
The investigation showed that there was no deliberate sexist or racist intent in the act, nor was the action targeted to an individual or a group, according to the chief.
“We strongly believe that hanging the figurine was (still) inappropriate and wrong,” said Rohlfing.
“The matter that is most upsetting and disheartening was the failure of our officers…to maintain and reinforce an environment and culture within the station where an incident like this would be instantly stopped or questioned. The figurine would have been taken down immediately.”
Two of the officers involved in the situation have already retired. The chief said it was unclear whether the incident played a part in their retirements.
Rohlfing explained that the disciplinary process began within a day of the discovery of the hanged figurine. The first in-person interviews began on March 5, but the coronavirus pandemic led to a long delay in the disciplinary process.
“(There was) no intent to prolong the investigation or to hide we were having an investigation and what was going on,” said Rohlfing.
The chief explained that even though the incident was not intentional, all firefighters will be participating in new anti-harassment training with a reinforcement of department standards, particularly to help build awareness of “inherent bias” in his team members.
“We should have done better than this,” said Rohlfing. “We must do better than this.”