MIAMI – Is placing the hangman's noose at someone's desk a hate crime? An investigation of City of Miami Department of Fire-Rescue firefighters continued to look for answers about a Sept. 9 incident that upset an African-American colleague.
Lt. Robert Webster reported finding the hangman's noose -- a symbol of racial terror that has been historically used to threaten African-Americans with hanging. Someone placed it over one of his family photos inside his office at Miami Fire Station No. 12.
Webster's complaint prompted Chief Joseph Zahralban to ask the Miami Police Department to investigate the incident. Detectives determined Capt. William W. Bryson, Lt. Alejandro Sese, David Rivera, Harold Santana, Justin Rumbaugh and Kevin Meizoso were directly involved.
They had yet to identify the firefighters responsible for leaving the symbol of racial animus inside Webster's office. After Zahralban decided to terminate the six firefighters, detectives were still investigating the incident Saturday. This raised questions about the potential for hate crime charges.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office was set to review the case pending the results of the investigation.
Earlier this year, Pompano Beach Fire Chief John Jurgle faced a similar challenge when Vilbert Green, a black recruit found a noose hanging over his seat. The investigation began July 16.
Matthew Reilly, a recruit, was fired and three other recruits -- Kerop Berberian, Geandy Perez and Austin Sovay -- resigned. An investigation revealed Perez had tied the noose, but authorities couldn't determine who placed it on Green's seat. No one was charged.
The majority of hate crimes involve violent crimes, but violence is not a requirement to file hate crime charges. In March, someone left a noose outside of the Gotha Middle School in Orlando. Orange County Sheriff's Office deputies investigated the incident but no charges were ever filed.
A noose incident at the United States Mint in Philadelphia, a facility that manufactures coins, also in July prompted the Treasury Department to issue a statement about their "absolute zero tolerance" of the hateful display that for some brings flashbacks about the thousands of African-Americans who were hanged from trees during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The New York Police Department's hate crime task force was investigating a noose that was found hanging inside the men's locker room at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan in October.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported the frequency of noose hate crime incidents surged after the 2016 presidential election through March 31. Their list of incidents included nooses left at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the American University campus in Washington, D.C., Crofton Middle School in Maryland and Wakefield High School in North Carolina.
The Anti-Defamation League acknowledged there was a surge in reports of noose episodes earlier this year, but the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't keep data on this type of reports.
Webster, who has served for the City of Miami Department of Fire-Rescue for about 17 years, said he believed the incident during the busy days of Hurricane Irma was "stupid" and a threat to the firefighters' brotherhood. They had also drawn sexually explicit symbols on his family photos.
Zahralban decided to clean house. During a press conference, he said he remembers driving to Miami Fire Station No. 12 about 2:30 a.m. to see for himself what Webster had found on his desk. He said he was disgusted and got all personnel out of the station.
Webster said he has felt his support. The station in the neighborhood he grew up in was dedicated to Willie Waters, the first African-American firefighter hired within a major department in the state.
"Racism and the tools of hatred (are) like a loaded gun sitting on the table," Webster said.