Fire department discrimination burns African-Americans

OPINION - For many African-Americans the dreams of rising as a firefighter have been forced to give way due to discriminatory promotion and hiring practices...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As a child, I can remember my favorite toy at my local New Haven Head Start was a firefighter helmet. I was convinced that when I grew up that I would be put on a bright yellow coat, red helmet, and save the lives of people, cats, and burning properties that were on the brink of disaster.

For me, those dreams of being a firefighter waned over time, but for many other African-Americans the dreams of rising as a firefighter have been forced to give way due to discriminatory promotion and hiring practices. While these issues are not new, they are now getting more national attention due to rising numbers of court cases and challenges to outdated hiring and promotion practices.

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Fire departments are far from bastions of diversity. Despite their location, many firehouses do not have a diverse composition of fire fighters and when fire fighters are hired, promotion is a difficult process.

In the case of cities like New Haven, Saint Louis, New York City and areas like North Hudson remain in heated debate about who gets hired and promoted. What fire houses are dealing with is what most public institutions will soon have to deal with the question of “who do we hire and how do they move up the ladder?”

For many years, it’s been thought that standardized entrance and promotion exams were the most equitable way to create a firehouse, police barrack, or other civil service units but this consistently being found to be untrue.

With legal challenge after legal challenge piling up, cities are realizing that decades old practices must be updated to consider the composition of the citizens that firehouses serve as well as the skills that are need to serve well. Exams and place based hiring, while efficient for cities, may not be serving the greater good of preserving property and lives.

One of the most controversial and highlighted cases of the complexities of creating diverse quality firehouses comes from the city of New Haven, Connecticut. In the mid 2000s, the City of New Haven’s Fired Department became enwrapped in a landmark lawsuit regarding “reverse discrimination” in promotion and hiring.

In 2004, the City of New Haven’s fire department administered an promotional exam where the top scorers were disproportionately White and there were few top scores who were Black and Latino. Worried about the unevenness of the results and the potential bias of the exams, the city’s Civil Service Board refused to certify the results of the test and use them as the basis for promotion.

The city’s decision to not certify the results was not simply about being good willed towards black and Latino fire fighters, instead the city feared if the test was the sole measure used for determining promotion the city would have a discrimination suit on their hands from black and Latino firefighters who had not faired well on the exam. Seventeen white and 1 Latino firefighters sued the city for discrimination (Ricci v. DeStefano 2009) for not accepting the results of the test and promoting them.

In the end, the Supreme Court sided with the firefighters and eventually the firefighters who had not been promoted were granted damages of 2 million dollars. While this is one decision, the controversy is far from over as a set of black officers are still suing New Haven for the use of the exam which has not been found to be racially unbiased. Diversity and hiring and promotion is not simply a black-white issue. In the North Hudson section of New Jersey the Newark NAACP recently won a legal victory on hiring practices which seemed to pit black applicants against Latino applicants. In the North Hudson area, which includes North Bergen, Weehawken, West New York, Guttenberg, and Union City, to be hired as a firefighter one had to be local resident.

Through careful statistical analysis the claim that changing hiring practices that would allow qualified non-resident black applicants to be hired would disadvantage Latinos was largely inaccurate.

The expert testimony and analysis suggests the perceived harm of changing practices is often greater than the actual harm and smaller than the benefits that that would occur by a change in practices.

With each twist and turn, cities and fire departments around the nation are wondering what should be done to not only avoid legal battles but create a diverse units. While there are not easy solutions, it is important that city’s realize that the quickest way to thin a pool of applicants is often not the best method.

Entrance and promotion examinations often have less to do with doing a job well than many have come to believe. Just like the common assumption that SATs were good predictors of college success has been challenged, so must the tests used in promotions and hiring.

As communities diversify, the civil service sector must take special care that diversity is reflected in leadership and membership. Issues of racial inclusion and exclusion are not new in fire departments but now there is a chance to change how the positions are filled from volunteers to chiefs.

Yesterday’s methods of hiring and promotion will not produce tomorrow’s great results. Creating assessments that are more closely tied to what jobs demand such as field tests could go a long way in ensuring greater equality of opportunity.