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Denver Fire Department Fires Black Captain Calling Him A Bully, Liar

DENVER (CBS4) - The Denver Fire Department fired Capt. Harold Johnson Tuesday claiming he behaved as a firehouse bully who mistreated firefighters under his command and was more concerned with making personal calls at work than with public safety.

"Nothing is further from the truth," Johnson told CBS4 in a taped interview on the day he was fired.

The termination came about one year after Denver's manager of safety secretly tipped Johnson off that he was under the microscope, sending Johnson a text message from her personal cellphone sharing inside information and warning Johnson to "watch your back."

According to a termination letter given to Johnson this past Tuesday and shared with CBS4, "Your repeated use of racial epithets; your pornographic and sophomoric comments at work; your demeaning treatment of women; your commitment to your personal cellphone over your duty to your crew and citizens; and your inability to tell the truth have no place in the Denver Fire Department of the Department of Safety."

Harold Johnson
Harold Johnson (credit: Tony Rivera)

Johnson served with the Denver Fire Department for 21 years before the termination, which was outlined in the blistering eight-page letter. He recently served as captain of Station 29 in the Montbello/Green Valley Ranch area.

Johnson agreed to discuss the accusations in the termination letter. The department accuses Johnson of compromising the safety of his crew saying his conduct "could have led to disastrous results for you and your crew. Contrary to departmental policies, you left active EMS scenes to use your cellphone for personal calls. According to your coworkers, you either left the building or made these personal calls in close proximity to crew members and persons being assisted. On other occasions, you made and received personal phone calls while on a fire rig responding to a call. When you engaged in this conduct, you were inattentive and unavailable to assist others with their work".

Johnson says he used his cellphone during "runs" because his son was going through a rough time and he had to take the family calls.

"I never put my crew in danger -- never," responded Johnson.

The department says its captain exhibited egregious behavior in other settings as well. Administrators say Johnson engaged in "bullying, intimidating and volatile behavior."

Earlier in 2015, the letter outlines Johnson's interactions with a white firefighter in which Johnson referred to his subordinate as "little white boy" at least 10 times.

"In addition to calling a Caucasian firefighter 'little white boy,' you doubled down on your unprofessionalism toward your colleague by telling this firefighter to go to the store to buy you chocolate crumb cake."

According to the letter, Johnson said "hey little white boy, take your truck and a radio and go get me a chocolate crumb cake at the store." The firefighter complied, according to the termination letter, because he did not want to risk upsetting the captain. In another case, the department says Johnson called an African-American firefighter "little black girl." Johnson told CBS4 he does not remember ever calling a firefighter "little white boy" and says other seemingly derogative references were simply part of "firehouse culture" which he believes is now being used as justification to fire him.

According to the department, administrators tried in 2010 to correct Johnson's intimidating and angry behavior with a Performance Improvement Plan. They say that clearly did not work and the only alternative five years later is termination.

Asked if he was playing "the race card," Johnson said "that is the card that needs to be played and whether they say it's playing it or not, it's the truth. I think it has been the mission of the department to rid black men from positions of power. Its systematic."

Johnson says he believes fire department commanders tired of his vocal criticism of racial issues and sought to fire him. In a 21-year career, prior to the current investigation that led to Johnson's firing, Johnson received two verbal reprimands and one written reprimand. In 2010 he was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and a performance improvement plan for anger issues. In 2011, Johnson participated in mediation over an insubordination violation.

As part of its investigation, CBS4 learned and confirmed that Denver Manager of Safety Stephanie O'Malley tipped Johnson off to the pending investigation into him. Johnson said he has known O'Malley for several years and went on a date with her but said the relationship did not progress and the two were just friends.

Stephanie Y. O'Malley
Stephanie Y. O'Malley (credit:

On Oct. 17, 2014, O'Malley sent Johnson a text message which was viewed by CBS4: "Hey ... FYI some in the station are complaining to Eric (Eric Tade, Denver's Fire Chief) about you ... watch your back and be guarded with your tone-comments."

CBS4 attempted to contact O'Malley to ask why she was tipping off Johnson about a pending internal investigation, O'Malley did not respond. Her communications director, Daelene Mix, said there would be no comment about the text message as its part of the case. Mix said O'Malley has recused herself from the case since she knows Johnson.

Johnson says he is considering appealing his termination and potentially taking legal action.

"Of the character flaws I have," said Johnson, "being a bully is not one. Lying is not one. Standing up for the truth is something I do."

Additional Resources


CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.


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