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Milwaukee Firefighter Who Hung Black Doll By Neck Could Still Be Disciplined

Fire Chief Tells Common Council Incident Wasn't Racist Or Sexist

fire truck
Dan Mullen (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Milwaukee firefighter who hung a small Black figurine by its neck in a fire station earlier this year could still face disciplinary action.

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission will review the case next week and decide if it will move forward with an investigation.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Common Council members questioned Fire Department Chief Mark Rohlfing for more than 90 minutes Tuesday about the incident, which took place in February, but wasn’t made public until June.

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The council’s Public Safety and Health Committee wanted a report from Rohlfing about how firefighters were disciplined and what the department was doing to end what they believe is systemic racism in its ranks.

Rohlfing said when the white firefighter hung the Black infant figurine, he wasn’t being racist or sexist in his actions.

“A gross lack of judgement is what I would call it,” Rohlfing said. “There is no doubt it screams racism and sexism. Our goal is to learn, so we don’t have these things happen again.”

Rohlfing said about a dozen firefighters were disciplined — including several battalion leaders — for allowing the figurine to hang in a break room for three to four days. The firefighter responsible was suspended without pay for 20 days.

The department’s investigation, by a white investigator, found the firefighter picked up the figurine on the street and brought it into the station out of “curiosity.”

He then hung the figurine by its neck with a ribbon on a bulletin board in the station’s kitchen. The station’s only Black female firefighter reported it to administration.

The woman, who is still in training to become a firefighter, later asked to be transferred out of the station to the department’s recruiting division. Rohlfing said she “adamantly insisted” she was never worried about retaliation.

Of the Milwaukee Fire Department’s 23 commanders, four are Black.

Rohlfing said he did not consider firing the firefighter who hung the doll because the firefighter’s past work history, behavior with colleagues and 10 years of military history gave the chief confidence the incident was not racist or sexist.

At the time of the incident, the Milwaukee Brotherhood of Firefighters, which represents Black firefighters, released a statement saying major re-education was needed in the department, “especially if this firefighter and every other firefighter who saw it do not see a problem with it. Remember we are citizens of a country with a history of racism and lynching Black people.”

On Tuesday, Rohlfing said the brotherhood was supportive of how the department has handled the situation.

Alderman Russell Stamper, II, said by not having a policy against racism, the Milwaukee Fire Department condones it.

“And firefighters are being able to get off the hook with racism,” Stamper said.

Alder Ashanti Hamilton said he believes its possible someone hung the doll as a goofy joke, but its effect still needs to be recognized.

“If we don’t recognize the impact that has on the person working in the environment and the message it sends to the entire community, and the historical context, we do an injustice to the community,” Hamilton said.

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