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Prince stands by fire chief amid racial allegations

A Crusader Staff Report

Mayor Jerome Prince has stepped up to support Fire Department Chief Sean O’Donnell who has been the target of racial allegations on social media that questioned his leadership months after he was appointed to the post.

On Monday, June 15, Prince held a virtual press conference at City Hall to address what he called a “rash of ugly, negative postings and whisperings in our firehouses” that have challenged O’Donnell’s character.

“For those of you in the Gary Fire Department, or related to the department, who are spreading vicious rumors and lies, enough is enough,” Prince said in the video. “You are harming the morale and the rank-and-file of the department and its leadership. You are creating divisions that can harm each other and the residents we are sworn to serve. You are also feeding into the disease so many of us decry these days, and that is racism.”

O’Donnell, who is white, was appointed at the beginning of the year to serve as the city’s fire chief. A 22-year veteran of the Gary Fire Department, O’Donnell was the elected president of Gary Firefighters Union Local 359 at the time of his appointment.

During the 10-minute press conference, Prince said he chose O’Donnell because of his qualifications and character and not his race or ethnicity. At one point during the press conference, Prince invoked Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to emphasize his message of judging one by “the content of their character.”

“When I selected (formerly) Lt. Sean O’Donnell to lead the Gary Fire Department, I selected him because of his commitment to saving lives and property in the city of Gary, his experience, his record and, most importantly, his content of character,” Prince said. “Those are the only factors I needed.”

Prince said he believes the negative comments on social media were triggered when O’Donnell asked a firefighter to wear proper uniform attire.

Prince said disparaging innuendo has been spread in recent months about O’Donnell.

He did not specify the details of those comments, but some of the Facebook posts came from Tyrone Jackson Jr., vice president of Gary’s One Love Black Firefighters Association.

Jackson reportedly claimed that firefighters were prohibited from wearing their association T-shirts while firefighters from other races were allowed to wear T-shirts that support their ethnicity.

In one Facebook post, Jackson said O’Donnell in a meeting said, “IT PISSED ME OFF THAT YOU GUYS STARTED A BLACK FIREFIGHTERS ASSOCIATION!!!!”

During the mayor’s press conference, O’Donnell called the accusations baseless and reminded residents of his clean record as a firefighter.

“I am a firefighter first and foremost. This job is a passion and a calling to me and many others. It’s the greatest job in the world,” O’Donnell said.

“Recently, some of my brothers and sisters have taken up another calling. They have gone on social media and in our firehouses spreading vitriolic rhetoric about who they think should be fire chief based on skin color, not character, and spreading a false narrative that I do not support Black culture and let other races do as they please.”

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