A senior Houston firefighter apologized Monday for keeping a rope that looked like a hangman’s noose in his locker, saying it was a memento from early in his career and not meant as a racist symbol.
Another firefighter found the rope in Capt. Keith Smith’s locker in February and, offended by what he saw, took a picture of what he thought was a hangman’s noose.
During a news conference Monday, Smith said he had been unaware of the racist imagery. “Now I am fully aware that it is a racial symbol,” Smith said, and acknowledged the hurt the noose caused.
He said the 4-foot piece of rope was a keepsake from the early days of his 20-year career.
The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People investigated and found that fire officials mishandled the incident. NAACP officials who attended Monday’s news conference said Smith was wrongly characterized as a villain.
“That’s unacceptable when you either overtly, covertly or inadvertently allow a man to be labeled as a racist,” said Rev. D.Z. Cofield, first vice president of the local NAACP. “Smith’s explanation was plausible, and I think his willingness to apologize would’ve resolved the issue for the majority of people.”
Cofield said the NAACP has recommended that a letter of reprimand issued to Smith be removed from his record.
Assistant Fire Chief Karen DuPont said department officials have not yet decided whether to remove the letter. She also defended the department’s actions, noting that officials worked with the Black Firefighter’s Association to make their decisions.
“Upon review, you always want to change some things, but at the time we took the most appropriate course of action,” DuPont said.
Cofield said the firefighter who reported that Smith had the rope in his locker did the right thing. “From that point on it was mishandled by the command staff, and it speaks to culture of the Fire Department that refuses to confront these issues,” he said.
The Houston Fire Department has come under fire recently over sexist and racist graffiti at a station and over a racist dispatch that was broadcast over department frequencies.
At a City Council meeting Monday, fire Chief Phil Boriskie laid out a plan to increase education and implement new measures meant to improve race relations.