The Bad Lieutenant

Did firefighter Kevin Chavez get thrown in the nuthouse for being an asshole boss?

An acting lieutenant and 19-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department was involuntarily placed under a 72-hour psychiatric commitment last month after his co-workers complained of feeling threatened by him. When police went to search firefighter David Chavez's home for weapons, court records say, they found loads of ammunition, a 30-round gun clip and Nazi uniforms and memorabilia (more on that later).

Sounds pretty bad, right? But Chavez's attorney, John Prentice, insists his client is being railroaded by lazy co-workers at Station 18 in the Sunset District who didn't like him ordering them to, well, work. For instance, Chavez, who was transferred to the station in January, started pushing for more training drills each day. That didn't go over well at the station, which Prentice says is known as "Chateau Relaxo." "My client says he's never threatened anyone. ... He's a very stable person," Prentice says.

Hmmm, so did Chavez really get thrown in the nuthouse for being an asshole boss?

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who appointed Chavez acting lieutenant, says she acted on the advice of a behavioral health specialist from the police department to have Chavez committed. "We felt we took appropriate measures to make sure everyone was healthy and safe," Hayes-White says.

The police department's mental health expert, Officer Kelly Dunn, says in a May 6 letter to a doctor in the psychiatric unit of Saint Francis Memorial Hospital that firefighters at Station 18 "think Chavez is going to return to the station and kill them by shooting them." Chavez allegedly liked to talk about guns at work and, Dunn wrote, "often draws firearms." Dunn added that she could see fear in the firefighters' eyes.

Oddly, however, none of those concerns is mentioned in court declarations by three firefighters who later sought a workplace restraining order against Chavez (they are being represented by the city attorney's office). In fact, the worst behavior described in those declarations hardly seems to qualify Chavez as a psycho: In one instance, Chavez called an underling "insubordinate" and then told another firefighter, "I wish it was the old days when you could just take somebody out." On another occasion, he grumbled that "some people should watch what they say or they might be talking through broken teeth."

Prentice says Chavez denies ever saying those things. As for the Nazi uniforms and memorabilia? Prentice says his client is a collector and has other World War II mementos from the British and American armies, too. "He's interested in history," Prentice explains. "He's not a monster; he's a very nice man."

Chavez also gets a not-psycho vote from Kevin Smith, an acting fire captain and president of the Black Firefighters' Association (not exactly known for its Nazi sympathies). Smith says Chavez worked under his command at another nearby firehouse without incident. "I would hate to think he's a Nazi-loving sociopath ready to go postal," Smith says. "None of those qualities presented themselves [when he was] working for me for more than three years."

Hayes-White says the department is still investigating the allegations against Chavez and hasn't decided if he should be disciplined. Chavez can't go back to work because of a temporary workplace restraining order against him. A court hearing is scheduled for June 22 to decide whether the restraining order should be made permanent.

In the meantime, no-nonsense managers working in the city's sensitive environs might want to watch what they say at work — and get rid of those Nazi uniforms while they're at it.

 
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