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Hartford — A newly released investigation into a black New London firefighter recruit's experiences last year at the state fire academy faults the training school for multiple procedural failures, inappropriate communications and possibly untrue allegations of recruit misconduct.
Alfred Mayo, the first black firefighter to be hired by New London since 1978 and the only black recruit in his academy class, was fired by the city in December, three days before his expected graduation from the academy.
He has since alleged he was a victim of racial discrimination and filed complaints to that effect with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against New London and the state fire academy.
"I feel vindicated," Mayo said Monday. "I'm going to meet with my attorney to determine what's next and we'll discuss the report in detail."
Among other things, the report notes discrepancies in how recruits are treated. A white male recruit in Mayo's class was caught cheating on a test at the academy, a serious violation, but was allowed to "walk with his class" at graduation and was still hired by his hometown fire department, according to the report.
The investigation was completed by the office of Reuben F. Bradford, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. Its findings were delivered Monday to Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and Fire Chief Ronald Samul Sr., along with a letter from the commissioner.
In his letter, Bradford said he didn't know if it was possible for New London to revisit its decision to fire Mayo.
"Regardless, I feel a responsibility as head of this agency to do what I can to correct the record," the commissioner wrote.
Investigators noted that Mayo was not dismissed from the academy, but rather, fired by the city without opportunity for a formal appeal. Had Mayo been dismissed, he could have filed an appeal.
Finizio has said the city relied on information it received from academy officials in deciding to pull Mayo out of the school and fire him.
Bradford wrote in his letter Monday that the negative evaluations of Mayo made to city officials were the opinions of one instructor at the academy and not "a conclusion of the fire academy or this agency."
"It is my belief that many of the communications were avoidable," he wrote. "Mr. Mayo's academic performance indicates that he persevered in the face of considerable adversity which would indicate the presence of positive intangibles in his character."
'No change at this point'
On Monday, Finizio said he had reviewed the report and there was "no change at this point in (Mayo's) status with the city of New London." Finizio said Mayo has a checkered driving record and a pending court case for speeding while attending the fire academy.
"When you make a determination relative to the hiring of someone, all of these things form a broad picture," Finizio said, "including, certainly, having a good driving record. When having a license is mandated, it becomes an important piece."
Last month, Finizio said the city was considering reinstating Mayo, but the mayor ended the negotiations after he consulted with the city's law department, city staff and an attorney for the city's insurance company.
The report was compiled by Bradford's chief of staff, Steven Spellman, and the agency's director of affirmative action. Their investigation report found that "best practices and proper procedures in accordance with rules and regulations were not followed. When you add race into the consideration, it becomes more than troublesome that the only black recruit was pulled from the academy."
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, called for the investigation after hearing Mayo's story in February at an NAACP-sponsored town hall meeting, a call Finizio echoed the next day. Hewett and the NAACP have invited reporters from across the state to a news conference today in the state Capitol complex about the investigation's findings.
Hewett said he is outraged at the serious lapse in procedures and potentially false allegations about Mayo that are detailed in the investigation.
"I have never heard anything like this. I really believe I have exposed an injustice at the school," Hewett said. "This is not about Alfred Mayo. This is about your kid, this is my kid. We educate our children to do everything they want to do in life, and then they go and pursue that and somebody just crushes them."
Mayo has tearfully testified about his academy experience and subsequent firing during press conferences, at two NAACP-sponsored town hall meetings and in front of the state legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
The investigation says that Mayo scored a 90 percent on his certification exam grade but was evaluated at below-average or poor in regard to behavior and effort.
Recruits at the academy are given deficiency points for "major" and "minor" errors. Spellman's investigation found that Mayo received two deficiency reports, while half of the class of 48 received more.
The investigation notes Mayo's statement that on the first day of training, he was the only recruit to put on his boots and find them filled with several inches of water.
The report contends that Mayo was wrongly written up for two formal misbehavior reports, called "conversation documents," that by procedure requires five demerits. When investigators questioned Recruitment Coordinator William DeFord, the person who requested the first report on Mayo, he explained that Mayo was an "eye-roller" and expressed "heavy sighs."
The second report was given after Mayo was videotaped "giving the finger" to a camera while marching in formation, in addition to "continued observed undesirable behaviors." The investigators conclude in the report that it was indeed wrong for Mayo to make such a gesture but say they are baffled about what the other "undesirable behaviors" were.
Mayo has admitted to "flicking off" a camera and said it was common practice at the academy.
In addition, investigators expressed skepticism over the allegation that Mayo wrote "class of 48" in wet cement. The cement-writing incident resulted in a third negative "document" against Mayo.
The report claims that DeFord blamed Mayo for the incident "based on hearsay and strong suspicions" and reported it to the New London fire chief. This communication between the academy and a recruit's sponsoring fire department was inappropriate, the investigation says.
Mayo has said from the beginning that he did not write in the cement.
The report recommends several changes at the academy, including diversity training and a new policy that decisions on whether a recruit graduates with his class be the sole prerogative of academy staff — not the sponsoring fire department.
Bradford said in his letter to Finizio and Samul that he is inclined to agree with his chief of staff that Mayo likely didn't "memorialize in cement any tribute to a training class in which his experience from day one was difficult at best."
Finizio applauded the state for investigating the academy and said he will take its findings "under advisement." It doesn't mean the city will hire Mayo, Finizio said, noting the city will "not lower standards for anyone."
Hewett said the city should rehire Mayo.
"If the kid still wants his job, do the right thing," Hewett said. "Don't be afraid to say that you were wrong."
Among the recommendations in a report on the state fire academy:
The academy should keep records as to the demographics of all recruit classes.
Rules and regulations should state that discrimination will not be tolerated.
Efforts should be made to diversify training staff both in race and gender.
Diversity training should be made available to staff.
Communications between fire academy staff and sponsoring fire departments need to be subject to greater oversight.
Any decision as to whether a recruit will be certified and graduate should be made solely by fire academy staff.