DENVER (CBS4) - A sex toy that was apparently raffled off during the annual Denver Fire Department Gala has prompted Denver's fire chief, mayor and manager of safety to condemn the action as inappropriate, unprofessional and poor judgment.
"It's completely inappropriate," said Denver Fire Chief Eric Tade, who attended the event but did not see the incident in question. "You shouldn't have to tell anybody that. It was clearly a bad decision," said Tade.
It happened at a downtown Denver hotel in late February during the annual Denver Firefighters Charity Ball which is put on by the firefighters union, Local 858. The event is firefighter funded and invitation only aimed at celebrating firefighter service and retirements while raising funds for charity, according to the union.
But what occurred only became public in recent weeks when the fire department union put hundreds of pictures of the event on its website, pictures that were available to the public. The photos showed a fire department Lieutenant -- the emcee of the event -- prominently displaying the "Manny The Fireman" sex toy during the raffle. The novelty sex toy then made the rounds. Some firefighters, spouses and girlfriends posed in a photo booth with the sexual aid.
After CBS4 began investigating the incident, the fire department union removed the photos from its website.
Responding to an inquiry from CBS4, David Foster, President of Denver Fire Fighters Local 858 issued a statement: "During the course of the evening, a small group of attendees acted in an inappropriate manner, detracting from the true cause of the gala," said Foster. He said the union and fire department administration would be "working together to make changes to prevent such conduct from occurring at the Fire Fighter's Gala in the future." He declined to answer additional questions.
Fire Chief Eric Tade said the Monday after the event, he contacted Foster and expressed his feelings that what occurred was wrong.
"I think it's in stark contrast to our values. It's not appropriate, not what we promote and not how we want employees to treat one another."
Mayor Michael Hancock stopped by the event but was also not present when the item was displayed and paraded around during the formal gala. A spokesperson for Mayor Hancock said "We expect more professional judgement in the future. What occurred was completely inappropriate and unprofessional."
Manager of Safety Troy Riggs said while he attended the gala, he did not see the item in question but also termed it unprofessional.
For a department that has been occasionally mired in controversy for its treatment of women, the incident represents a step backwards
Within the last month, a fire department lieutenant resigned and was criminally charged after he allegedly planted a hidden camera in the firehouse sleeping quarters of a female firefighter.
In 2016, the department paid female firefighter Camilla Von Burkhardt $75,000 after she filed a lawsuit saying sexual harassment was 'pervasive' at the department and ingrained in department culture. The payment settled her claims against the department.
In January of this year, a jury awarded former Capt. Colley Fisher $146,000 in her federal lawsuit against the department after she said she was fired for filing complaints about gender discrimination. She had described the Denver Fire Department as a "boys club." Her attorney said the case could end up costing the city closer to $1 million after issues of front and back pay and attorneys fees are computed.
"These are a few isolated incidents," said Tade, "that don't reflect over 1,000 men and women who come to work every day and are dedicated and perform admirably."
Although Tade expressed his displeasure to the union president several days after the event, it appears nothing else happened until six weeks later when CBS4 began asking questions about the party and the sex toy. After those media inquiries, Tade said he would consider corrective action like disciplinary actions against firefighters, new training, policy changes or cancellation of the ball altogether.
Asked why those actions were only considered after CBS4 began investigating, a spokesman for Tade said the Chief was not aware of the racy photos from the gala until CBS4 noted their existence.
Department spokesperson Captain Greg Pixley told CBS4, "Had Chief Tade been aware of, or had he witnessed the photos you presented to him prior to your interview on Thursday the 11th (April 11th), his action would have been as swift as it was on Feb. 25. Chief Tade will always address inappropriate behavior of DFD members when he becomes aware of concerns.."
"Clearly it's not funny or appropriate... absolutely it's embarrassing," said Tade.
Current Denver Fire statistics show that 51 out of 1,015 firefighters, or 5.02 percent are female. Department spokesperson Captain Greg Pixley said that's twice as many as the department had in 2007 when the department had 25 female firefighters.
He provided statistics showing that most departments have only 3-4 percent females and some -- like Los Angeles and Boston -- have one percent of their workforce made up of females.
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