New Haven firefighter asks to retire as decision on employment pending after ‘racist’ comments

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NEW HAVEN–On September 2 New Haven Fire Department Lt. Kevin Owens was suspended for 15 days without pay after fellow firefighters brought to light comments from his Facebook account.

New Haven firefighter William Augustine told Fox CT at the time that he brought up the comments, which many considered racist, to Chief Allyn Wright after receiving a text about Owens’ message. “I got a text from an individual of a post that was posted on Facebook and it had the derogatory word on there,” explained Augustine.

The post was made on the comments section for the Facebook group “English and Proud.” In the post, which was made from an account belonging to Owens and bearing his name, the n word was used.

After serving the 15-day suspension, Owens was supposed to meet with the Board of Commissioners so that they could determine his future, or lack there of, with the department.

However, on Tuesday, September 22, Owens submitted documents to start the retirement process.

When Laurence Grotheer, the director of communications for Mayor Toni Harps’ office, was asked how Owens comments would impact his desire to retire, Grotheer said if the employee had accrued enough years working for the city and met the required retirement age, then that employee was eligible to retire. He didn’t comment specifically on Owens.

The process to determine a pension is based on how many years were served and age, as well as most recent salary and what the contract the person signed when starting the job said. Because Owens has enough years with the department and is old enough, he is eligible to retire without a review and will begin receiving pension checks this month.

However, more complex retirement decisions are left up to the pension review board, and are reviewed in the order that they are received.

Owens’ collective bargaining contract states his pension rate is $69,667.45, which he automatically will receive for the rest of his life. However, he may be eligible for more, which the pension board will have to review.

Owens filed a physical disability claim, which needs to be reviewed and substantiated, along with his retirement papers. If approved, 50 percent of his pension would be tax-exempt.

Also, base pensions are determined based on number of years of actual service, but don’t taken into account any additional service credits based on actual number of years worked. Owens had saved up a lot of sick days, which could make him eligible to qualify for more years of service. If that number is high enough, and Owens moves into the top 20 in the Fire Department in terms of seniority, his pension would rise to $85,919.59.

In response to the racist comments that were allegedly made, other firefighters and officials were appalled.

“There’s been a long-seated, deep, historical issue around race and discord and upheaval in this department, and for him to use that word, says to me that this is who he has been since day one,” said firefighter Darrell Brooks.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said, “Frankly, I was appalled. Whenever people wanted to make me feel badly, that was the name I was called.”

Harp said she wants members of the fire department to undergo cultural sensitivity training to address issues with race.