A City of San Antonio investigation concluded that Fire Chief Charles Hood violated several City policies when he posed for a photo at a party with a woman clad only in sushi and strategically placed garnishes.
The investigation also found that the Fire Department failed to properly handle a complaint about the photo, according to records released on Tuesday.
“I want to apologize again for the photo,” Hood said in an email. “I am looking at this as an opportunity to develop an action plan to improve SAFD’s culture in respecting differing perspectives and ensuring women are provided with opportunities to join, contribute and lead within the department.”
In January, a woman was hired to lie on a table as sushi was served from her body for about 200-300 guests attending a 50th birthday party for firefighter Shody Henshaw. The practice, nyotaimori or “body sushi,” has been criticized as an objectification of women.
The investigation found that about half of those in attendance were fire department employees, including female firefighters. The photo of Hood kneeling next to the woman was first published by the San Antonio Express-News in October.
A summary report of the investigation sent to City Manager Erik Walsh on Nov. 19 shows that Hood violated department policies regarding conduct and behavior, relationships with co-workers, and public perception. Read the report here.
“Hood’s off-duty conduct brought reproach and discredit on himself, as ongoing reports clearly demonstrate,” City Attorney Andy Segovia and Human Resources Director Lori Steward wrote. “Had Hood come forward on his own, the situation could possibly have been better managed and/or mitigated.”
Hood has led the department for 13 years and was named Fire Chief of the Year by the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association this past summer.
His behavior and the photo could have a “long-lasting impact on the tone of employee relationships, particularly among women and employees of Asian descent,” the report states. “Further, it is troubling that Fire Department personnel did not [at] any time during their interviews show any awareness of how Hood’s conduct could have offended certain people.”
Hood had apologized to those who found the photo offensive while defending it in media reports.
The chief also violated the City’s administrative directive regarding equal employment, diversity, and anti-harassment. The directive states that “any behavior, regardless of intent or severity, that could be deemed inappropriate workplace behavior … is prohibited.“
Because so many fire department employees attended the party “it is arguable that Hood’s behavior among his employees – regardless of where – may impact his employees’ perceptions of attitudes in the workplace,” Segovia and Steward wrote.
Batallion Chief Brian McEnery raised a complaint about the photo in September to Assistant Chief Neal Ague, but Hood’s command staff failed to properly forward it to the City’s Human Resources Department.
“Chief Ague, last night I texted you a picture of Chief Hood eating sushi off of the naked body of a young Asian girl,” McEnery said in an email. “I have two Asian relatives that are members of the SAFD. I cannot begin to tell you how offensive I find Chief Hood’s actions. His actions degraded all Asians and women reducing them to nothing more than serving platters.”
He asked that his email and the photo be sent “up the chain of command” and to Human Resources. It took more than a month for SAFD leadership to forward it to Assistant City Manager Maria Villagómez – after local media publicized the photo.
“I am confident that Chief Hood and his leadership team will renew their focus on creating a culture in the Fire Department that promotes respect and professionalism – one where there is zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior and where women are respected, empowered and given the opportunity to promote and lead,” Villagómez said Tuesday. “As the Deputy City Manager who oversees the Fire Department, those are certainly my expectations.”
City policy clearly dictates that any complaints about a director should be “immediately reported to Human Resources,” the investigation summary states. Hood “is the Department Director who clearly was not in a position to investigate himself. His Deputy Fire Chiefs were also not in a position to investigate their direct supervisor.”
In an email Tuesday, Walsh said his executive team is “held to a higher standard both at work and off duty. At my request, Chief Hood has provided me with a course of action to address improving the culture of SAFD by recognizing different perspectives, equal opportunity for women and the proper handling of complaints of this nature.”
Walsh’s letter of discipline last month requested Hood’s response but did not impose any punitive action against him.
In response, Hood described an “action plan” to improve the department.
That plan includes a collaboration between SAFD and the Equity Office to develop training regarding respect for different cultures, reviewing and enhancing recruitment practices, and creating a working group to establish a female employee mentoring program.
About 5 percent – 89 – of the City’s 1,757 firefighters are women.
Regarding the issues with the complaint process, Hood pledged to work directly with Human Resources and the City Attorney’s Office “to develop a procedure that clearly articulates the process for identifying, filing, handling, and forwarding issues and complaints.”
The department also will consider bringing in an outside instructor to conduct classes in avoiding discrimination and harassment for all personnel, Hood wrote.
The report reveals that McEnery had alleged retaliation after lodging his complaint, but the investigation concluded that his claims were uncorroborated.
“I am pleased that there was a thorough, deliberate response from city management to this important issue,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing Chief Hood’s action plan that ensures full gender equity in the fire department.”