Stories & Grievances
Fire Department Under Pressure To Diversify
The process of hiring firefighters in New York is legendarily byzantine and divisive. According to current rules, applicants are ranked according to their written scores and are further winnowed by a pass-fail physical exam. The department is required to hire, in order, the highest-ranking candidates, who receive additional points for having relatives who died in the line of duty while working for the department (which most often has occurred with whites), living in the city (which mostly benefits blacks) and serving in the military.
August 26, 2011
A Fire Department Under Pressure to Diversify
By ALAN FEUER, NY Times
IT was heaving rain two weeks ago when Salvatore J. Cassano, New York City’s fire commissioner, showed up on a Sunday to pitch his department to the congregants at Concord Baptist Church of Christ on Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn. No doubt because of the weather — people had stayed home at “Bedside Baptist,” the pastor joked — Mr. Cassano, gamely dressed in pinstripes, was confronted by empty pews. A trumpeter had just played hymns to some restless boys, a few old men and clumps of hatted matrons. From a microphone, the commissioner delivered to the half-filled room what had become the most important, and thorniest, public message of his career.
“We’re going to be hiring,” he told the all-black crowd, listing benefits of what is known across New York as “the job”: a starting salary of $40,000, the chance to earn $100,000 after five years, four weeks of paid vacation, lifetime medical care, a generous city pension. “I raised five kids and four grandkids on this job, and starting at the bottom I became commissioner.” He added proudly, “When you join the Fire Department, you inherit a second family — a family where, if something happens, people rally around you, just like they do in this church.”
The trip to Concord Baptist, Mr. Cassano’s fifth this summer to a black church, was the latest personal effort in a drive to recruit minority applicants that is unprecedented in the department’s history. In 18 months, officials say, recruiters have sought black candidates at more than 6,100 events at high schools, colleges, shopping malls, boxing gyms, softball games and military picnics, all but begging them to apply for the next entrance test, in January, by the Sept. 15 deadline.
A phone bank in Queens has placed more than 100,000 calls to minority residents who expressed even passing interest in the job. There is a recruitment Facebook page and advertisements in New York’s Caribbean newspapers. More than $1 million has been spent for radio spots on stations with heavily black audiences like Hot 97 and Kiss FM.
“No stone — not one — is going to be left unturned,” Francis X. Gribbon, a department spokesman, said.
The effort stems from an undisputed fact: more or less since its consolidation into a single city-run force in 1898, New York’s Fire Department, in a city that is now about 30 percent black, has been overwhelmingly white. Currently, the 14,000-member force is about 3 percent black, a figure that has remained unchanged for decades despite interventions reaching back to 1973, when a federal judge established a plan to hire one black firefighter for every third white one, and the city’s own attempts to integrate the department.
The latest challenge, a lawsuit championed by the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters’ organization, has been playing out this month in a bench trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Last week, it entered a decisive phase: the judge, Nicholas G. Garaufis, began to consider remedies, which could include a court-appointed master to oversee recruitment.
The Vulcans, who claim the department discriminated through two civil-service tests, in 1999 and 2002, have asked Judge Garaufis to award financial damages to applicants who were not hired, or may later be hired after delays. The city has fought this claim with a panoply of unsuccessful arguments: that officials did not deliberately discriminate; that there cannot be pervasive bias in the city’s work force when some agencies, like the Correction Department, are mostly black; that the Fire Department should not be held accountable if blacks, because of poor educational opportunities, tend to score lower on standardized tests than whites. (Blacks are not the only underrepresented group in the department, where Latinos make up 7 percent and women less than 1 percent.)
Most profoundly, the suit has exposed the seemingly unbridgeable psychic gap between those who are certain that the department is an honorable meritocracy in which appointments and promotions are objectively decided by tests and those who believe it is a cronyish white man’s club that may not want more blacks and makes life uncomfortable for those already there.
Among those in the first camp is Commissioner Cassano, a 42-year veteran who has earned commendations at almost every rank from firefighter to top uniformed officer. After his speech, he sat near the church’s basketball court, where he avowed, remarkably, that while he had obviously always known the department was predominantly white, he never understood, until the suit was filed, that others viewed this whiteness through a lens of racial bias.
“It never dawned on anyone,” he said. “We never looked at white or black. We looked at good firefighter or not so good. Me? I made it in this department by what I did, not who I was. But then you suddenly realize: people may actually think we’re discriminatory.”
Looking almost hurt, he paused and said, “That’s why I’m here today.”
FROM the moment the trial began, on Aug. 1, it was clear that even minute details were going to be contested. A parade of witnesses — deputy commissioners, recruitment officers, black firefighters, Mr. Cassano himself — took the stand, explicating issues like the timing of radio ads and whether the department discriminates in its prehiring background checks.
The trial is only the latest action in the suit, which the Vulcan Society joined and carried forward after it was filed by the federal government in 2007. In his first decision in the case, two years ago, Judge Garaufis ruled that the department had indeed shown bias against minority candidates in the written exams, which whites passed in far greater numbers than blacks. Last year, he further ruled that the tests reflected a pattern of intentional bias, wielding words that made clear whom he blamed: “The history of the city’s efforts to remedy its discriminatory firefighter hiring policies can be summarized as follows — 34 years of intransigence and deliberate indifference.”
One afternoon after the trial let out, Capt. Paul Washington, a black officer in Engine Company 234, in Brooklyn, sat in the courthouse cafeteria with Firefighter John Coombs, president of the Vulcans. An hour earlier, Captain Washington had testified about racial insults he encountered on the job: the casual flinging of the N-word and the defacement of a flier for the Vulcans’ first memorial service after 9/11. Where the guest speaker’s name was printed, someone had scribbled other names: Buckwheat, Al Sharpton, Fat Albert.
Now, the two men explained that overt animus like that was fairly uncommon on the job. Instead, they complained of a corrosive obliviousness to race, discernible in acts as unsubtle as dinner-table condemnations of affirmative action and as seemingly innocuous as a recreation-room preference for Fox News.
“Our experience is different,” Captain Washington said. “There’s 50 white guys in a firehouse from the same background — middle-class, Long Island, the kids play soccer together — so, yeah, they’re having a ball. But if you’re the one black guy in the house, maybe you ain’t having so much fun.”
It is this experience of difference that forms the emotional underpinning of the suit. Firefighter Coombs said the city had not only ignored this shared experience, but had moved to combat it only under threat of legal action.
Well before the suit was filed, officials were put on notice that the results of the exams were racially imbalanced. In May 2000, the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission wrote to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, informing him that 91 percent of the white applicants who took the 1999 written test had passed, compared with 61 percent of the black candidates. In 2002, 97 percent of whites passed, and 85 percent of blacks.
Over the next two years, the commission repeatedly asked the department to study the exam, but each time, Judge Garaufis wrote in his 2009 decision, nothing happened. In 2003, the commission went to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who initially responded, Judge Garaufis noted tersely, with “a two-paragraph letter that he was satisfied with the F.D.N.Y.’s compliance efforts.”
THE process of hiring firefighters in New York is legendarily byzantine and divisive. According to current rules, applicants are ranked according to their written scores and are further winnowed by a pass-fail physical exam. The department is required to hire, in order, the highest-ranking candidates, who receive additional points for having relatives who died in the line of duty while working for the department (which most often has occurred with whites), living in the city (which mostly benefits blacks) and serving in the military.
But now those rules are largely theoretical, because Judge Garaufis imposed a hiring freeze in October, after ruling that the 1999 and 2002 tests were biased. He did so, in a much-misunderstood aspect of the case, invoking a concept called “disparate impact,” in which discrimination can be inferred from statistics. While black firefighters have accused the city of purposefully drafting questions to benefit their white counterparts (many of whom are better educated and are exposed to firefighting tradecraft through friends and family), Judge Garaufis did not wade into such terrain.
“It does not follow that the plaintiffs are obligated to present ‘smoking-gun’ proof of intentional discrimination,” he wrote. “Direct proof of an employer’s state of mind is ‘hard to come by,’ and intentional discrimination may be revealed through circumstantial evidence alone.”
This ruling angered the department and its supporters, who argue, with sustained exasperation, that things are getting better. The department gave its last test in 2007. More than a third of all applicants were black or Hispanic; 93 percent of blacks passed; and, most important, 33 percent of the 4,000 people who scored well enough to be considered for the job were minority candidates. Despite these improvements, Judge Garaufis invalidated the 2007 test and appointed a special master, Mary Jo White, a former United States attorney in Manhattan, to oversee the writing of a new one.
“Was there a huge historical problem? Yes,” said William B. Eimicke, a public affairs professor at Columbia University who was a deputy fire commissioner from 2007 to 2010. “Did the department face that problem? Yes. So we beat up on them now for past wrongs? The reality is the department should look like the city it serves, and a majority of senior officers believes that’s true.”
They say they also believe — and fear — that Judge Garaufis will appoint a special master to oversee recruitment, which, some say, could increase diversity at the expense of hiring standards. Judge Garaufis has promised not to micromanage the department, but his questions have revealed an interest in administrative details.
One day, for instance, when Mr. Cassano was on the stand, the judge announced that he had seen, while driving to court that morning, a Fire Department Prius in a highway accident. It troubled him, he said, that some officials apparently had their own full-time department cars and could commute to work — as he assumed the official in the Prius was doing — when the recruitment office, he noted, was forced to borrow vehicles from the motor pool.
Mr. Cassano, disputing this assumption, told the judge he may have actually seen a recruitment worker returning a borrowed car the morning after a late assignment. “I suppose when I get back to work,” he said, “I’ll find out which car got hit.”
A FEW days after the trial began, Deputy Chief Paul Mannix, the president of Merit Matters, an advocacy group dedicated to “preserving merit” in Fire Department tests, was eating lunch in the back room of Connolly’s Corner, an Irish bar and grill in Maspeth, Queens. It was, at least according to cliché, the sort of place you would expect to find a veteran white member of the department: golf played on the television in the bar, which is co-owned by a fire lieutenant. Chief Mannix’s attitude toward race, however, was nuanced. “I have black guys who support me; my sergeant-at-arms is Hispanic,” he said. “I hate even having to saying that, though, because it implies we’re defensive or racist, and we’re not.”
In op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, Chief Mannix has loudly made himself a spokesman for the idea that impartial performance standards are crucial in the dangerous job of fighting fires and for the corollary notion that to “bend over backwards,” as he put it, to hire blacks is sometimes to discriminate against whites.
His advice to minority candidates, contained in a letter five years ago to The Chief, the city’s civil-service newspaper, was bracingly Churchillian: “Study for the written test, train for the physical test, take advantage of the equal opportunity afforded by the civil-service system, and take personal responsibility for your efforts, good or bad.”
Chief Mannix, who is linebacker large, said he did not know why the proportion of black firefighters had remained at 3 percent, but added, “I can tell you the false narrative that the department has worked against integration is just that — a false narrative.”
To ask white firefighters about the 3 percent figure is to hear whispers that more college-educated whites apply than college-educated blacks, or that blacks live in poorer neighborhoods than whites — where more fires occur — and thus are less inclined to make a career of running into burning buildings. This last sentiment was echoed, perhaps surprisingly, by John J. Gilstrap, a black fire lieutenant’s son who has been working for years on “Black Smoke, Black Skin,” a documentary about black firefighters in New York.
Mr. Gilstrap, one of the few New Yorkers who grew up thinking that the Fire Department was a black institution (his uncle was a firefighter, too), said: “It’s a hard job — it’s life on the line. There’s just less demand from the community for that job.”
He added that “a cognitive dissonance” between blacks and firefighters had lessened the demand. “Black youths think ‘fireman’ is a white man’s job, a mysterious cult,” he said. “You know what a cop looks like, or a postman. They’re on the street. But you don’t understand the culture of the firehouse. It’s insular. The doors are literally closed.”
Mr. Gilstrap had a personal answer to a question murmured by white firefighters, who are often accused of recruiting around the dinner table: If we, they say, are knocked for passing the job to relatives, why don’t black firefighters do the same? “Black firemen join the department to help their kids leapfrog out of that life,” Mr. Gilstrap said. “You do it so your kids don’t have to. For white firemen, it’s about legacy and history. It’s culture.”
Firefighter Coombs, the Vulcan Society president, recalled how he once asked white colleagues why they did the job. “They said, ‘Ah, camaraderie! Brotherhood!’ ” he recounted. “I said: ‘Are you guys insane? Has any of that ever paid your mortgage?’ Of course, I cleared the kitchen out with that one.”
The dispute’s most troubling complication may be Judge Garaufis’s decision to toss out the promising 2007 test results, which thrust hundreds of black applicants who scored well into limbo. They must apply for January’s test, with no guarantee they will score as highly the second time around.
Firefighter Coombs contends the city is at fault for stranding this diverse crop of candidates: the judge offered five ways to hire off the 2007 list, but each was rejected by the city because it was perceived to be a form of racial quota.
None of which matters to David Cargin, 29, who scored a perfect 100 in 2007 and was quite likely to have been hired.
“We’re the casualties of this stalemate,” said Mr. Cargin, who is black and now works as a letter carrier. “At the end of the day, there are no winners here, just losers.”
Racism complaints in the FDNY are overblown, city lawyer claims
BY John Marzulli, DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER, August 26th 2011, 4:00 AM
Racism complaints in the Fire Department are "isolated incidents," making a special monitor to oversee how such claims are investigated unnecessary, a city lawyer said Thursday.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Patricia Miller took direct aim at the request by the Vulcan Society of black firefighters for outside oversight of the FDNY, which has been the subject of a three-week bench trial in Brooklyn Federal Court.
Milller suggested the shocking testimony by Vulcan members about a noose found in a firehouse, the defacing of a flyer announcing a memorial for black firefighters killed on 9/11 and a firehouse "game" designating someone a "n-----" for each firehouse shift, was overblown.
"That is a showing of isolated incidents that could happen in a population of over 16,000 people," Miller said, referring to the head count of the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Service.
Miller questioned why Capt. Paul Washington and Lt. Michael Marshall who testified about some of the incidents, have remained on the job for more than 20 years if the FDNY is so racist.
She also noted that former Firefighter Lanaird Granger, who testified about finding a noose near his gear, waited three weeks to disclose the incident at a Vulcans' press conference.
Miller came under tough questioning by Judge Nicholas Garaufis who pointed out that many EEOC complaints had remained open for years and resulted in dubious discipline.
Although Miller insisted the firefighter who defaced the 9/11 flyer was "disciplined on the spot" by his batallion chief, Garaufis was not impressed.
"Does that mean he was moved to another firehouse? Was he rapped on the knuckles?" the judge asked sarcastically.