Fired Kennewick fire chief sues, saying racial discrimination cost him his job

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Vincent Beasley, then Kennewick’s fire chief, was picked as the 2017 Martin Luther King Spirit Award winner. Beasley is suing the city of Kennewick in federal court, saying he was fired because of racial discrimination. (Tri-City Herald file)

KENNEWICK — Former Kennewick Fire Chief Vince Beasley is suing the city of Kennewick in federal court, saying he was fired because he is Black and opposed discriminatory practices toward racial minorities and women.

Beasley, a native of the Tri-Cities, worked for the Kennewick Fire Department for 40 years, including as chief from 2014 until he was fired in September 2019.

He is asking for a jury trial and seeking lost pay, bonuses and benefits, plus damages for emotional harm and punitive damages.

Beasley, who continues to live in the Tri-Cities, has been unable to find another firefighting job. The stigma of being fired after nearly 40 years has made getting hired for another firefighting job extremely difficult, he said.

Beasley’s attorney says that Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley, who is named as a defendant, illegally held Beasley to a higher standard than white employees.

“She required her one Black employee to work twice as hard and be twice as good, to get half as far,” said Beasley’s attorney, Beth Bloom of Seattle, in the lawsuit.

Beasley met more than 90% of the city’s defined performance goals from 2016 until 2019, which was above numbers that Mosley called “exceptional,” according to the U.S. District Court lawsuit.

He received numerous awards and grants, including the community’s Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award given by Columbia Basin College.

As fire chief he improved the city’s firefighting capabilities, according to an independent agency rating, which the city touted in a news release three months before he was fired, according to the lawsuit.

The Washington State Survey & Rating Bureau gave the city a Community Protection Class Rating of four under Beasley’s predecessor and he improved it to a three, according to the lawsuit. In 2019, just five cities in Washington state were rated better.

In the final months before Beasley was fired, Mosley began giving him new, excessive and unreasonable work assignments, according to the lawsuit.

Beasley worried that he was being set up for failure, but worked longer and harder to meet the demands, the lawsuit said.

On Sept. 3, 2019, Mosley demanded that Beasley resign or she would fire him. He refused to resign and on Sept. 18 was fired, according to the lawsuit.

Beasley believes Mosley was influenced by discriminatory feedback based on racial double standards from senior city employees and leaders. Members of the Kennewick Fire Department union also gave discriminatory feedback, according to the lawsuit.

Kennewick officials referred a request for comment on the lawsuit to the city’s insurer, which was not immediately prepared to give a statement.

At the time he left in 2019, city officials said they couldn’t release sensitive personnel information and that Beasley had resigned.

“It’s fair to say the city manager was working on a potential retirement agreement, couldn’t reach it, then the chief took his own actions,” a spokeswoman told the Herald at the time.

Beasley told the Herald at that time that he had refused the separation agreement and was placed on administrative leave before being ousted.

Only Black firefighter

“It is unsurprising that City Manager Mosley discriminated and retaliated against Chief Beasley given that a discriminatory culture has consistently pervaded the city government’s senior leadership and fire department,” the lawsuit said.

The other seven city department heads were white, according to the lawsuit, and all seven members of the City Council while Beasley was chief were white men.

Beasley is the only Black firefighter hired in Kennewick in more than 100 years, according to the lawsuit, which says he faced a discriminatory culture in city government.

In one example, when he shook hands with another firefighter, that firefighter looked at his hands and joked, “It doesn’t rub off,” referring to Beasley’s skin color.

Other Kennewick firefighters, including a battalion chief, discussed “killing” minorities to improve local culture, the lawsuit said.

“Chief Beasley observed that he had to walk a tightrope that white employees did not,” the lawsuit said. “If he was quiet, Mosley would tell him to speak up and be assertive. Then, when he would speak up, Mosley would criticize him for doing so.”

According to the lawsuit, this happened frequently to Beasley when he was in meetings, but white employees were permitted to speak freely.

For example, after a 2018 fire, City Manager Mosley criticized Beasley for initially listening and evaluating information, according to the lawsuit.

“Then, when he started to speak up about that fire by reaching out to minority communities, she criticized him for that,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit points out that as fire chief Beasley needed to lead and be assertive.

“But a Black man, according to strong stereotypes, should remain deferential and subordinate,” the lawsuit said.

In late 2018, Beasley began to openly oppose the city’s racist and sexist culture and hiring and retention practices, which favored white men, the lawsuit said.

He told the Tri-City Herald that he had been forced to terminate a couple of women who worked for him.

Mosley reacted to Beasley raising concerns “with cold silence and by becoming standoffish,” the lawsuit said.

In his annual performance evaluation in March 2019, his 2018 performance was evaluated negatively, with no mention of his success in meeting city goals and improving the fire safety rating.

“Chief Beasley speaking up and being assertive about discrimination in late 2018 triggered racial biases,” the lawsuit said. “Ms. Mosley evaluated Chief Beasley’s performance differently in part due to his race, whether she was aware of it or not.”

He encouraged her to “serve more than just white residents” and demanded that she “hire more than just white men for open positions.”

Past issues

Beasley was named fire chief after some years of disarray in the department, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims fire department employees were known to have sex during work, abuse sick leave and exercise instead of performing their duties.

The response time for emergency calls increased and during one significant fire, Kennewick firefighters abandoned their duties to watch TV and read the newspaper, leaving other city fire departments to fight a fire within Kennewick city limits, the lawsuit said.

However, the previous fire chief, who was white, was not fired, the lawsuit said.

Two other city department heads, both white men, also were not fired even though their performance was inferior to Beasley’s, the lawsuit said.

Mosley gave white subordinates repeated chances to improve and lengthy tenures, but quickly terminated the only minority head after a single negative performance review that was inaccurate and prejudiced, the lawsuit said.

In fact, the human resources director assured Beasley that he would not be fired because the other department heads had performed so poorly and had not been fired, according to the lawsuit.

In a letter dated the day Beasley was fired, Mosley said she fired him because he committed misconduct and she falsely claimed he had submitted a notice of resignation, according to the lawsuit.

Although Mosley issued a news release saying he had resigned, the lawsuit said that in fact he was fired.

Annette Cary: