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November 7th, 2001 PHILIP DAWDY | News Stories
 

Where There's Smoke

     
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Ken Olsen, a Portland Fire Bureau battalion chief under scrutiny for letting bigotry reign on his watch, has been demoted to captain, WW has learned.

However, sources familiar with ongoing bureau investigations say Olsen's demotion is not a direct result of racially charged incidents involving an African-American firefighter. Instead, the action, which he's appealing, stems from more recent comments he made to other firefighters about the investigation into the incidents.

Olsen, a 27-year veteran of the bureau, has been a battalion chief (a rank comparable to a police precinct commander) for almost five years. Early this summer, the bureau began investigating the behavior of Olsen and other firefighters toward Rick Fizer, an African-American firefighter at Station 24 in North Portland. Allegedly, Fizer was taunted with racial slurs and practical jokes involving black dildos.

The Fire Bureau had ordered battalion chiefs not to discuss the Fizer case, but on Sept. 14, Olsen reportedly approached firefighters at Station 17 on Hayden Island and began to make disparaging remarks about Fizer.

Sources familiar with the investigation say Olsen badmouthed Fizer for complaining about his treatment and criticized his hiring through the bureau's apprenticeship program, which is designed to increase diversity in the bureau, rather than through the more common civil-service process.

Firefighters reported the Sept. 14 incident to bureau officials; an investigation was launched into Olsen's conduct. On Oct. 14, Olsen returned to Station 17, where he approached Lt. Randy Leonard, the former Portland Firefighters Association president. Olsen had made his comments about Fizer to members of Leonard's crew. According to Leonard, Olsen made it clear that he wanted to learn who had complained about his September visit.

"I took it as an implied threat that there'd be hell to pay if he found out who talked to Fire Bureau," says Leonard, who is a state representative. Leonard says he reported Olsen's second visit in order to protect his crew members. "I thought they would be the subjects of some retaliation by Ken," he says. Olsen was not available for comment.

Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who oversees the Fire Bureau, is the City Council's most outspoken advocate for racial diversity. But legally, he can't speak about the bureau investigations. "When rules are violated, people need to be disciplined" is as far as Francesconi can go until he announces what discipline has been handed down to Olsen and others involved in the Fizer case. His announcement is expected by the end of next week.

 
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