Current, retired SAFD personnel accuse assistant chief of workplace intimidation

Assistant Chief Joe Jones removed from command staff, demoted

SAN ANTONIO – Multiple current and former members of the San Antonio Fire Department have accused an assistant chief of workplace intimidation and hazing cadets, according to interviews compiled by the KSAT 12 Defenders and audio of an SAFD senior staff meeting held last year.

The city confirmed Thursday evening the assistant chief in question has been demoted.

Assistant Chief Joe Jones, the department's chief of staff, was placed on administrative leave days after the meeting, and was later removed from SAFD's command staff.

Jones was "temporarily reassigned" to the Emergency Operations Center Nov. 4, according to a department memo sent from SAFD Chief Charles Hood and obtained by The Defenders.

In a written statement released Thursday evening, Hood confirmed Jones has been demoted to the rank of battalion chief.

Jones remains on discretionary leave, according to Hood's statement, which went on to read:

"One of my top priorities is to seek active participation of all staff in order to define structured and continual improvement.  As the result of several meetings between field personnel and administration, a number of ad-hoc committees were created to address concerns and make improvements within the organization."

The roughly two-hour and 25-minute meeting, held at Public Safety Headquarters in late October, included a "vast majority" of the department's battalion chiefs, Hood, Deputy Chief Yvette Granato and Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh, who arrived partway into the discussion, according to department sources.

An SAFD spokesperson confirmed the audio was recorded without Hood's knowledge.

Hood letter on Jones.pdf by David Ibanez on Scribd

The meeting came weeks after 20 of the department's 24 battalion chiefs signed a letter outlining morale concerns within the department.

Jones did not attend the meeting, nor a smaller follow-up meeting during which the decision was made to place him on leave, according to multiple SAFD sources.

Jones spoke with The Defenders and said he was familiar with what was said during the meeting, but declined to go on the record for an interview without permission from the chief's office.

The city declined to make Jones available for this story.

Senior staff members are heard on the audio discussing multiple issues, including the use of a new SAFD patch design.

However, the discussion repeatedly returns to Jones' behavior: First, while he was head of training at the fire academy from 2011-2014, as well as after being promoted to assistant chief in June 2014.

"You keep defending him and you keep covering for him. And for you to do that to us is disrespectful as hell," a female battalion chief tells Hood on the recording.

KSAT 12 altered the voices of the battalion chiefs in an effort to help protect their identities.

The same chief goes on to describe an incident during which Jones had to be separated from her by another staff member following a confrontation.

Multiple battalion chiefs on the audio describe Jones as being "out of control," and point to a 2013 cadet video in which training staff curse and scream at cadets and throw some of their belongings outside.

Jones himself is seen on the video following a male cadet into the restroom then berating him for using the restroom alone.

Firefighters are taught during training to follow a "two-in, two-out" policy, meaning they are not to enter a potential rescue or firefighting situation alone, according to multiple firefighters who spoke with The Defenders for this story on the condition of anonymity. 

RELATED -- Defenders: SAFD assistant fire chief placed on leave

City officials confirm the video was later shown at a cadet graduation ceremony.

On the audio, battalion chiefs described cadets as being "terrified" of Jones, even though some of them had previously served in the military.

One chief said Jones routinely described cadets as "my pets" and repeatedly pointed out that they were at-will employees without union protection until graduation.

Hood is heard on the audio opening the meeting by saying the battalion chiefs do not need to fear retaliation for speaking their minds.

He later confirms on the audio that members of command staff "basically had an intervention with Joe" and that "actions were taken against him."

Hood said on the audio that Jones took part in closed door counseling sessions, but refused to discuss specific details when pressed by battalion chiefs, citing confidentiality rules.

Walsh, who is heard on the audio saying he was not aware of previous concerns with Jones's behavior until they were brought up during the meeting, claimed that the allegations would be investigated and taken seriously.

"Nobody, regardless of who you're describing or who it's against, nobody should feel confronted like that. Not a cadet, not a 28-year district chief, battalion chief. That just doesn't happen in the workplace," said Walsh on the recording.

After a battalion chief replied "Oh yes it does," Walsh responded, "It's not supposed to happen in the workplace."

Walsh declined a request for an interview for this story, but did release the following statement:

Concerns raised by the SAFD battalion chiefs in a private meeting that was secretly recorded have been addressed, including threats of intimidation. The City of San Antonio is a professional workplace and this misconduct was appropriately addressed.

Concerns about Jones were echoed by former members of his academy training staff as well.

"Hazing, bullying, belittling. Scaring people who've put their lives on hold," said retired SAFD Engineer Richard Ozuna, who served as the academy's health and wellness officer under Jones.

Ozuna retired in early 2015 after 29 years with SAFD, and said he also served as an academy instructor before going on medical leave.

He described an environment in which classroom time was repeatedly interrupted by Jones and other training staff so that cadets could take part in impromptu calisthenics.

"Drop them on the floor, pushups, sit ups. They did this thing called the 'dead cockroach,'" said Ozuna, describing an exercise in which cadets were told to lie down with their arms and legs up in the air.

Ozuna also claimed that Jones and other training staff members would throw away cadets' food during lunch if staff members did not approve of their meal choices. He contends that many cadets were on limited incomes, and in some cases, brought in the only food they could afford.

"When I became aware of the fact that Chief Jones and the Chief Jones mentality of doing things was now going to be a constant, it is not something I wanted to be a part of anymore," Ozuna said.

The academy's former training coordinator under Jones, who asked that his name not be used, described the atmosphere of the academy while Jones was in charge as "toxic."

The city's open records office has asked the state attorney general to block the release of emails and text messages sent to and from Jones in the months leading up to him being placed on leave.

The city to date has also failed to release Jones's personnel file, even though the 10-day deadline to respond to the request passed in early December.

The city did release data related to workers compensation claims filed by fire cadets for work related injuries from 2010-2016.

Supporters of Jones told The Defenders that cadets trained under him were more physically fit and able to meet the demands of being a firefighter.

The data shows claims decreased while Jones was in charge of the academy then increased after he joined the chief's office. 

Work-related injury claims from cadets that were accepted by the city spiked in 2016, at 22 total.

The city paid out more money in cadet workers compensation last year than the previous six years combined, according to city records.

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