MBFD chief fired for “foot on throat” comments
by Mark McDermott
Manhattan Beach Fire Department Chief Daryn Drum was dismissed last week due to language he used on a conference call with regional public safety officials in which he urged a negotiation tactic of “not taking our foot off their throat,” as well as comments on a local podcast in which he spoke sympathetically of a police shooting that happened near his former jurisdiction in North San Diego County.
In the wake of the May 25 incident in Minneapolis in which a police officer kept his knee on the throat of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, strangling him to death and sparking nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Drum’s language drew the city’s immediate attention.
In a press release issued at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 19, City Manager Bruce Moe announced Drum had been relieved of his duties and his employment agreement with MBFD had been terminated.
“We need thoughtful leaders offering voices that are open and inclusive,” Moe said in a statement. “Chief Drum’s recent comments do not reflect our core values as a City, and an immediate change of Fire Department leadership is in the community’s best interests.”
The city released a 67-second excerpt of the conference phone call with the South Bay Regional Communications Center in which Drum, apparently referencing negotiations with a service vendor, made repeated use of the phrase.
“I am comfortable continuing to move forward, but not letting our guard down and, pardon my vernacular, but not taking our foot off their throat, either,” Drum says on the recording. “I think our foot — your foot — needs to be clearly on their throat, and they need to feel it, and they need to feel that constant pressure every single day, that we mean business….I am comfortable continuing down the path as long as your foot is firmly on their throat.”
The RCC meeting occurred June 16. The podcast comments, on the South Bay Show, likewise were made last week. Drum was featured on the podcast, hosted by Jackie Balestra, along with Manhattan Beach Police Department Chief Derrick Abell in an hour long discussion that focused on both COVID-19 and civil unrest as public safety issues.
Drum spoke at length about a variety of topics relating to public safety during times of crisis, including his experience as a 9/11 first responder going through the pile of rubble at the former World Trade Center and his empathy for the challenge police officers face regarding the use of force. He noted that his brother is a police officer and recalled a police shooting incident in a nearby jurisdiction when he was working in the San Diego area.
“I put myself in the shoes of the officer and I could not imagine doing anything else than what he did,” Drum said. “And it was portrayed in the media poorly and it caused demonstrations, potential violence. Chief Abell and I have had the conversation previously that you’re one good shooting away from civil unrest. And now it’s changed to you’re one violent interaction [away], and the officer oftentimes doesn’t control the level of violence that comes with that interaction. The person that they’re in contact with is really the one in control. If you comply, there’s no violence; if you respond with violence, then the officer has no choice. So with social media and the cameras, there’s one violent interaction — regardless of whether it was appropriate or not — away from civil unrest.”
Drum, 55, was appointed as fire chief last April after serving 24 years as a firefighter, battalion chief, and division chief in fire departments in the San Diego area. He still serves on the school board for the Ramona Unified School District in North San Diego County. His arrival in Manhattan Beach appeared to be a positive turning point for a department that had issued a vote of no confidence in the previous fire chief, Robert Espinosa. Drum attempted to create a more inclusive work environment and said that MBFD firefighter’s had “servants’ hearts.”
“People get into this business because they want to help people,” Drum said in an interview last year. “It’s a wonderful career, but really, most people get into it for the right reasons…Everybody I’ve met so far was just a great representative of the city, and what they’ve expressed to me is they are ready to move forward. They are not dwelling on the past, and neither am I.”
Drum, reached by phone, said he had no comment at this time regarding his dismissal. City officials likewise declined comment beyond the city manager’s statement. Abell has been named interim fire chief, a position he also held last year, prior to Drum’s hiring, while still serving as police chief.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, resident Robert Harkins said he’d previously served as a jury foreman in a wrongful termination case regarding the City of West Covina and that Drum’s firing seemed to lack any kind of due process or compliance with state employment laws.
“Even if he used words that were strongly objectionable, language that I would never use, I think it’d still be wrong to simply fire him,” Harkins said. “Free speech is just a bedrock of American values…There needs to be written warnings, there needs to be performance improvement plans, coaching, and it’s only after these kinds of things fail that the city can move forward and fire somebody without opening it up to a legal claim.”
“It kind of makes you guys come off as being this social and political correctness committee, rather than the group elected to discharge the bylaws and the policies of the City of Manhattan Beach,” Harkins added. “And then the other thing that I would just finally mention is that the origin of this phrasing, it’s so common that it’s found in dictionaries. If you go to Joshua 10:24 in the Bible, that’s where the phrasing ‘Put your foot on the neck’ comes from….If you’re going to fire a former 9/11 first responder it should be for more than saying some words.” ER