A former Austin fire lieutenant recently charged with placing a hidden camera in a women’s changing area at a fire station was the subject of complaints by his colleagues in 2013 for how he performed medical checks on female patients.
In written reports obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, three firefighters contended that recently retired Lt. James Baker was seen putting his hand down women’s shirts for no apparent medical reason, including once after a minor traffic collision. Several of his colleagues wrote that Baker’s actions made them and other firefighters uncomfortable.
Union officials say the Fire Department did not properly address the firefighters’ allegations at the time in March 2013 and did not interview them for additional information. The department did not treat the complaints as a possible disciplinary matter.
“I do not want to be associated with this type of patient care and hopefully it will never happen again,” a firefighter wrote at the time.
A captain, in a letter to his supervisors, added, “Lt. Baker is a paramedic and has a higher level of training than most of us, but in my 26 years, I have not seen or heard from the other firefighters that they have seen an assessment or felt as uncomfortable on the scene as when Lt. Baker was doing his assessments.”
The documents do not indicate how often Baker was seen touching women’s chests. Baker’s attorney said his client never did anything inappropriate involving patient care.
When they received the allegations, Austin Fire Department leaders routed the complaints to the city’s medical director, who ensures appropriate training for the city’s first responders. That official, who at the time was Dr. Paul Hinchey, did not deem Baker violated any standard of medical care, according to the department.
“That was the end of the matter,” the department said in a statement this week, adding that administrators believe the matter was handled appropriately when it was raised.
The department would not release documents relating to how it resolved the issue, saying that it has given them to police investigators and that the records are now part of the case file involving Baker’s alleged secret recordings at Austin’s Central Fire Station on East Fifth Street.
Union President Bob Nicks contends the department’s professional standards division, which is similar to an internal affairs unit, should have interviewed firefighters who made outcries as part of a broader inquiry.
The medical director, he said, is tasked only with ensuring first responders are using proper protocols and techniques — not investigating allegations of wrongdoing.
“If that investigation had been done properly and witnesses were called to testify, it most likely would have prevented the videotaping of a female in a fire station locker room in 2017,” Nicks said. “I think he would have been terminated.”
Nicks said he recalls telling Baker at the time that he thought the department would fire him if it did a full investigation.
Larry Sauer, Baker’s attorney, said this week that Nicks is “on a witchhunt, and he ought to back off.” He emphasized that the medical director at the time did not find fault with Baker.
“It appears to be piling on and with no basis to it,” Sauer said. “It was looked into at the time, and the issue was resolved.”
According to the letters, one firefighter who worked with Baker wrote that on one emergency call, Baker “bypassed an elderly lady that was bleeding to assess a female patient that did not appear to be hurt (assessment by placing his hands under her shirt).”
He wrote that he spoke with his captain about it, who promised that he would counsel Baker. He said he then understood from colleagues that it happened again.
“They responded to a traffic injury, (and) before the guys off the back could reach the patients Lt. Baker was putting his hand up a female patient’s shirt,” he wrote. “This assessment may be the thing to do in his eyes, but it makes the firefighters that respond with him uncomfortable and after a warning before, I felt like it needed to be reported.”
Another firefighter who worked with Baker wrote that he also witnessed a similar incident — “Lt. Baker checking the female driver’s chest and back by putting his hand up from the bottom and down the top of her shirt,” he wrote. “I have never been trained on or seen such a technique and did not feel comfortable with or see the need for the execution of such a technique. The collision was minor with no air bag deployment and all occupants walked away.”
Baker is charged with invasive recordings and has been released from the Travis County Jail on bond. According to an arrest affidavit, a woman was in a dressing area and was getting out of the shower when she saw a light beaming from a shelf.
The affidavit said she followed the light and realized she was being recorded. She confiscated the camera and turned it over to police.
Austin police detectives reviewed footage from the camera and saw Baker enter the woman’s locker room around 3 a.m. and set it up, an arrest report says.
Baker retired; he is charged with invasive visual recording, a state jail felony punishable by 180 days to two years in jail.