A district court judge denied a peace order Wednesday to three Montgomery County firefighters who said they feared for their lives after a coworker confronted them about a Confederate flag license plate.
The men, who were working at the Bethesda Fire Department Station 6, had filed for a peace order against Idris DeBruhl, a 12-year veteran of the county’s fire department. They said he lashed out and threatened them over a fellow firefighter who parked his truck with a Confederate flag license plate in front of the station.
DeBruhl, who is black and a Muslim, said there is a “culture” of racism and discrimination in the department that he wanted to speak out against. He denied threatening the other firefighters at the station.
In Montgomery County District Court in Rockville Wednesday afternoon, Judge Zuberi Williams denied the peace orders on the grounds that a similar situation was unlikely to happen again. But he reproached DeBruhl for his actions, calling them “unconscionable” and “way out of line.”
“I know you are disappointed with me, but I will always follow the law,” Williams said, addressing the three firefighters who were the petitioners. “I’m not happy with anyone’s behavior here.”
Williams last week denied a peace order filed by Charles Lee, who owned the truck with the Confederate plate, on similar grounds.
The dispute was first reported by NBC News4.
According to court testimony, DeBruhl was working the early-morning shift at Station 6, which is in Chevy Chase, on July 19 when he saw the license plate of a truck parked outside.
“In plain sight, I noticed a license plate-sized Confederate flag in front of the engine bay,” DeBruhl said in court. “Instantly, my heart rate increased and I felt nervous. … It made me very upset.”
DeBruhl said he tried to bring up the license plate to other firefighters in the kitchen, but was ignored by his coworkers and his supervisor. He said he exercised on the stair mill to work through his feelings, but still felt upset. He decided to say something to the crew in the kitchen.
DeBruhl said his voice was shaking and he thought he might cry.
However, the three other firefighters—Aleksandar Aleksandrov, James Smith and Jeff Ford—told a different story, suggesting DeBruhl quickly became enraged and began cursing at them and calling them cowards for not taking action about the license plate.
“That’s when he went from zero to 1,000,” Ford said. “He was more enraged than any human being I’ve ever seen in my life.”
They also claimed he told them that he had “more guns than you” and “I’ll end this now.” Williams was skeptical if the comments came up in the way the three testified or if there was context missing.
After the confrontation, one firefighter showed posts from DeBruhl’s Facebook account to the others, which they said contributed to their desire to get a peace order to protect themselves.
The posts included a photo of DeBruhl taking a selfie in front of police officers while apparently protesting the presidential inauguration and a text comment in which he seemed to joke about police receiving a “license to kill.”
When Williams asked what the posts meant, Aleksandrov said, “That we had a very angry man. It tells me this is a man ready to hurt someone else.”
“When you see a picture that makes you think he is going to harm you, how is that different from him seeing the flag [and reacting to it]?” Williams later asked Ford.
“I believe he was offended,” rather than threatened, he replied.
In a final statement, DeBruhl said the incident was a flash point in a long story of discrimination. He said other firefighters have called him racial slurs or a “boy” or used slurs in front of him. He claimed other firefighters sometimes made comments against Muslims.
He said he is often the only black man on his shift and felt the need to say something. He thought his coworkers seemed to laugh it off and he didn’t want it to get “swept under the rug” like other incidents, DeBruhl said.
“As a black man in 2017, in a room full of white men, I stood up to the appearance of a Confederate flag on county property,” he said. “And people are upset and determined to make me pay for it.”
Williams called it “the old argument—hatred versus heritage” but said even a history of discrimination would not excuse DeBruhl’s outburst against the firefighters, including those who did not own the vehicle with the plate.
Noting that he remembered sitting in firetrucks as a kid, Williams said he was disappointed in the actions of all involved and how it would have an impact on their effectiveness.
“When a house is on fire, the last thing I want to worry about is whether there is a dispute that keeps [firefighters] from working together,” he said. “These are the heroes of our community, and they need to do better.”
This story was updated at 5:40 p.m.