Atlanta fire chief fired over anti-gay book

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Mayor Kasim Reed sacked his fire chief on Tuesday, citing the chief's inflammatory anti-gay book that he wrote without consulting him and the chief's continued efforts to rally religious leaders to his cause during a month-long suspension.

A sometimes angry and defiant Reed announced Kelvin Cochran's firing during a City Hall press conference. (Watch above) It came at the end of Cochran's 30-day suspension the city used to investigate details of Cochran's book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked” and whether he violated city policies by writing it. In the book, Cochran calls homosexuality “the opposite of clean,” compares it to bestiality and sexual perversion, and says it dishonors God.

Reed (top photo) said the city has a strong non-discrimination policy, which bans bias based on several categories including sexual orientation and gender identity, and Cochran's book violated it. Additionally, Reed said the Cochran was fired for failing to discuss the book with Reed before publishing it. 

“As the commanding officer of 750 employees within the Fire & Rescue Department, his judgment and his ability to manage that department was the subject of this inquiry,” Reed said.

City policy, Reed said, requires prior approval from the city's ethics officer and ethics board. Cochran discussed the book with city ethics officials, but did not receive written approval to publish the book, Reed said. Worse, the mayor added, he failed to discuss it with him.

“His actions and decision-making undermine his ability to manage our fire department. Every single employee under the fire chief's command deserves the certainty that he or she is a valued member of the team and that fairness and respect guide employment decisions. His actions around the book and his statement during this investigation have eroded my confidence to convey that message,” Reed said.

Chief rallied anti-gay supporters


Reed suspended Cochran on Nov. 24; he returned to work on Tuesday. During his suspension Cochran rallied anti-gay religious groups to his side, speaking to the executive committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention on Dec. 9 and addressing First Baptist Church in Newnan on Dec. 28.

Reed said those appearances factored into Cochran's dismissal.

“I thought that his decision to continue to speak out during the course of the investigation while we were not, was not the appropriate path and certainly contributed to the decision that I have made today,” Reed said.

Reed said that Cochran, despite a direct line of communication to the mayor, failed to discuss the book with him. During the suspension, Cochran showed no contrition and did not apologize, Reed said.

“He made the judgment that he should write a book that contains material that is clearly inflammatory and never ask me how I felt about it,” Reed said.

But the critical factor in firing Cochran, Reed said, was the fire chief's flawed judgment.

“This is about judgment. I hope that everybody at home and everybody who reads about this is crystal clear. I don't think that anyone who works in a business that could make a decision to write a book that required them to contact the ethics officer in that business, have multiple conversations with the ethics officer and never talk to the leader of that organization, which is me. Not one time during the course of preparing this book did Chief Cochran ever think it was appropriate to have a conversation with me despite the fact that I have made my opinion and this administration's opinion clear on this topic,” Reed said.

Reed: Judgment not religious views led to firing


Anti-gay religious activists have defended Cochran, criticizing the suspension as retaliation for Cochran expressing his religious views. Reed fired back at those critics on Tuesday.

“His personal religious beliefs are not an issue – at all – despite the number of comments and emails that I have been receiving on a daily basis,” Reed said. “The city and my administration stand firmly in support of the right to religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to freely observe one's faith.”

Reed said Cochran's book impacted LGBT employees and the environment at the fire department.

“Let's stop trying to make this about religious freedom when it's about making sure that we have an environment in government where everyone, no matter who they love, can come to work from 8 to 5:30 and do their job and then go home without fear of being discriminated against. That is what this is about,” Reed said.

Cochran (second photo) met with human resources officials on Tuesday before Reed's press conference. He was given the opportunity to resign or be fired. He didn't resign; Reed fired him a short time later.

“His religious decisions are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem,” Reed said.

Keeping Cochran could have also paved the way for lawsuits and created a potential liability to the city, Reed said.

The mayor grew visibly angry at times during the press conference when discussing personal attacks aimed at him, critics calling the religiously-grounded mayor the “Antichrist” and calling his home and wife. Reed also aimed his anger at Cochran's actions during his month-long suspension when he repeatedly spoke to anti-gay religious groups.

“If Chief Cochran wants to have a debate with me about his faith and my faith, and if Chief Cochran wants to have an open conversation about all of the things that I did for him when he was fire chief, let's have it. You tell me where to be and I'll show up,” Reed said.

LGBT liaison for fire department?


City Council member Alex Wan (third photo), the only openly gay member on the council, appeared beside Reed during the press conference, along with several high-ranking city officials and commissioners. Wan said he fully supports Reed's decision to fire Cochran.

“I didn't have the confidence that LGBT employees in the fire department would feel comfortable and safe going forward. I thought this was the only reasonable and acceptable action,” Wan said.

In the wake of Cochran's firing, Reed said that the city will move forward with sensitivity training within the fire department to help reform it and make sure that LGBT employees feel safe. Reed also said that his LGBT advisor, Robin Shahar, was intricately involved in the Cochran case and would be working with interim Fire Chief Joel Baker to “reform the department.”

Reed also expressed a willingness to explore appointing an LGBT liaison in the fire department, similar to two positions at the Atlanta Police Department.

“Absolutely. I am open to any and all suggestions,” Reed said. “But it was important that before we did anything that we conclude this investigation and put this chapter behind us so that we can have a new chapter going forward. “

Wan said he's discussed the idea of an LGBT liaison within the fire department with Shahar, but that Cochran's firing might provide an opening for a larger initiative for the city's LGBT employees.

“I think that's one step. I would actually support an affinity group. That's another step, another layer that we can add in terms of protection and just creating that safe space for LGBT employees, not just for the fire department. I think this may create an opportunity across the city to really look at what we do to make the workplace environment comfortable and safe for everybody,” Wan said.


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