Tresia Givens was alarmed by the man kicking and pounding on the locked, glass front doors of the Nashville hotel where she worked.
It was about 4 in the morning on Aug. 18, 2019. The man was trying to use a credit card instead of his hotel key card to gain access to the building.
"I have my key, you black bitch…you black n—-r, open the door," he said, according to a subsequent investigation.
When Nashville police came, the man was so drunk, according to a witness, he "fell on the police officer when he arrived."
That man was Portland firefighter Nicholas Perkins. And he was visiting Nashville on the taxpayers' dime.
Perkins, 40, who joined Portland Fire & Rescue in 2007, had traveled to Nashville at city expense to attend a conference on the physical and mental health of firefighters and first responders.
He is an EMT and peer fitness trainer in the bureau, working out of Station 24 in North Portland's Overlook neighborhood.
Like many of his colleagues, he is a white male—almost 90% of fire bureau employees are men and 80% are white—and he lives far from the people he serves: in Cowlitz County, Wash., where just 1.1 % of the population is Black. In a city known for its lack of racial diversity, Portland Fire & Rescue is a citadel of white men. (Perkins declined to comment.)
Yet for the first time in its history, the bureau is under the command of a Black female fire commissioner—Jo Ann Hardesty—and its first Black chief, Sara Boone.
It was within that context that Hardesty and Boone had to decide what to do with Perkins when he returned from Tennessee.
Perkins arrived in Nashville on Aug. 17, travel records show. It was a muggy Saturday evening. He began his night at a brewery, then finished it at what he would tell a fire bureau investigator were "honky-tonks."
"I landed in Nashville and have never been to Nashville," he would tell the investigator. "I was excited to go downtown and see what it was about."
Perkins would later claim, records show, that he drank a couple of "moonshine margaritas." He also claimed to have no memory of using any racial slurs or much else of what happened when he got back to the hotel.
"I don't recall," he repeatedly told the investigator, according to the interview transcript WW obtained through a public records request.
But when the investigator interviewed the desk clerk Givens and her manager, who was on the phone with her during the incident, they were very specific in their recollections.
Perkins "used the word 'n—-r' several times throughout the incident," they told the investigator.
Perkins' superiors learned what had happened the next day and ordered him to return to Portland right away, meaning he missed the conference for which the fire bureau had paid $2,300.
Perkins sat down Sept. 26, 2019—a month later—for an interview with Greg Espinosa, the fire bureau's deputy chief of professional standards, and Keith Hathorne, a human resources official for the bureau.
In the interview, Perkins expressed equal measures of amnesia and contrition. He said he had Black friends and had never before made racist remarks. He begged to keep his job.
"I'm very, very sorry for this," Perkins said. "I want to hopefully put this behind me and prove that I'm a good employee, a good member of the bureau, and I'm sorry."
His plea seemed to resonate with Espinosa, the professional standards chief. "It really goes a long way, Nick, you saying that," Espinosa told him. "I mean, it choked me up."
Division chief Ryan Gillespie, who as head of training was responsible for Perkins being in Nashville, was less moved. After the investigation, Gillespie, who is white, recommended in January 2020 that Perkins be fired.
That did not happen.
When Hardesty found out what had happened in Nashville, she was "appalled."
"My initial reaction is that he should never wear a Portland Fire & Rescue uniform again," Hardesty says. "I thought he should be gone."
But Perkins is a member of the Portland Firefighters Association, a union that is very effective at sticking up for its members. Union president Alan Ferschweiler says in his 15 years as a PFA officer, only a couple of firefighters have been terminated.
The bureau placed Perkins on paid leave Nov. 22 and left him there for nearly seven months. (His salary is $94,479.) Before he could be fired, however, Perkins had the right to a due process hearing before Chief Boone and Ferschweiler.
That hearing took place Feb. 4. Ferschweiler poked at the allegations against Perkins: There was no video; Givens' statement didn't match up exactly with the police report or witness statements. And, Ferschweiler emphasized, Perkins was sorry.
"He's been a wonderful employee for this fire department," Ferschweiler said in the hearing. "We are absolutely taking somebody's life and ruining it based upon a he-said-she-said situation."
In March, records show, the union sent a private investigator to Nashville to reexamine the allegations against Perkins. That didn't change anything.
On May 26—the day after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd—Boone, who as the bureau's top official is ultimately responsible for hiring and firing decisions, handed down her ruling: Perkins would not be fired but would be suspended for six months without pay.
He would also have to sign a "last chance agreement," effectively putting him on probation for five years, and consent to diversity training. Meanwhile, the union and fire bureau agreed their officers would also undergo such training.
"This is an opportunity for us to take some steps forward," Ferschweiler says. "We are very supportive of Chief Boone and happy to walk on this new path with her."
Although she spared his job, Boone made her displeasure with Perkins clear in a letter to him.
"Your use of targeted racial slurs against a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, and while representing PF&R on official city business is simply unacceptable and violates the core values of the city and the bureau," Boone wrote. "The violations were of such an egregious level as to cause severe distress, emotional trauma, and fear from the complainant, which is the antithesis of who we are as public servants and the oath we have sworn to uphold."
Boone overruled Gillespie and convinced Hardesty, her boss, to go along with the reprieve.
Both say Boone convinced them that keeping Perkins in the bureau would be an opportunity to catalyze change. "I support it 100%," Gillespie says.
But the fire bureau didn't want to talk about Perkins' case. When WW filed a public records request June 15 for details of his actions and the resulting discipline, the city rejected the request. (Boone says that's because as part of the last chance agreement, the city agreed to assert the documents were exempt from public disclosure.)
Heidi Brown, chief deputy city attorney, explained the rationale. "[Boone] determined that the interest in achieving change outweighs the public interest in knowing the details of this matter," Brown wrote in a July 12 letter. "Her decision was not to cover up or hide the matter, but rather to achieve broader change."
WW successfully appealed that denial to then-Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill last month. Underhill, whose office referees public records disputes, ruled the public had a right to know.
"The records in this case do shed light on the issues of structural reform, race, and public employee union involvement in the disciplinary process. All three of which are of intense public interest at present," Underhill wrote in his July 22 order.
Boone says she anguished over the final decision on Perkins. She says she felt "horror" when she initially learned about the incident. But as she considered what outcome would best serve the bureau's mission and need for transformational change when it came to equity, Boone found herself taking a different direction.
"I have gone through many scenarios," Boone says. "Termination was first and foremost. But I had to check myself. How can I be fair and objective and not make a decision based on emotion?"
She says that having known Perkins for years, she believes he is capable of redemption and that his positive example will help change the bureau's culture.
"As a Black person in a white institution, you have to create the change you want to see," she says.
Hardesty now believes Boone made the right call.
She says Boone made the case to her that firing Perkins would fail to allow improvement for him or, more importantly, for the bureau.
"This is an opportunity to continue to shift a culture that has been dominated by white males since its inception," Hardesty says. "What we inherited is something we have an obligation to change."