The FDNY’s hiring process will be under the supervision of the federal court for the next decade, if not longer. Any changes made to any test given need to be approved by federal court before the next two firefighter exams.
Last week, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Vulcan Society won a four-year-old lawsuit against the FDNY. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis told reporters that the city needs “to comprehensively reassess its policies and practices, to analyze the evidence showing the effect of those policies and practices and to rationally consider how they can be changed to achieve a firefighter hiring process that is-in actual practice and effect-fair and open to all.”
On Oct. 17, the judge will appoint a monitor to act as his representative to oversee all of the hiring practices for the next 10 years. The monitor will have the power to approve or reject policy changes.
According to court documents, “the underrepresentation of Blacks in the ranks of New York City firefighters is a vestige of the city’s discrimination against Black firefighter candidates.”
“We are very happy with the decision for a number of reasons. The judge agreed the Fire Department cannot be trusted to change on its own,” noted CCR attorney Darius Charney. “It has proven, over the last 40 years, that it is unwilling to do what is necessary to end its discrimination and exclusion against applicants of color in the FDNY. We think that it was long overdue. It is time to hold FDNY’s feet over the fire.”
CCR, which represents the Vulcan Society, complained a decade ago, charging that the exam given to FDNY applicants was plagued with inadequate SAT-like questions.
“These are the kinds of decisions we saw in the ’60s and the ’70s in the South. When federal judges would basically tell racist states and Southern cities, ‘Hey, look, you can’t do this anymore,’” Charney added. “It is interesting to see this kind of decision in 2011. What it shows is that the FDNY’s hiring practice is a relic of that time.”
The court’s decision was a slap in the face to the Bloomberg administration, which allowed the department to remain almost 97 percent white for decades, despite the fact that the city’s population is approximately 25 percent Black.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the Associated Press that no previous administration had done more than his to attract diversity to the FDNY. “Our commissioners have worked ceaselessly [and] tirelessly to make sure that everybody, every community, knows what a great job this is, and tried to convince them to join the world’s greatest fire department,” Bloomberg said. “More than 61,000 people applied, half of them minorities, shattering any previous record for minority applicants.”
In a city of 8 million, where more than half the population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, only 9 percent of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters are Black or Hispanic.
Vulcan Society President John Coombs feels the ruling is a step in the right direction for the FDNY. “It’s rewarding to know there was an effort made and it has now become a reality for more people in our communities,” he said. “It is a great thing to know that people in our communities will still have some financial stability by way of employment in the Fire Department. My biggest concern is to see people of color as firefighters-then I will be elated.”
Coombs continued: “People of color wash out by a greater rate than anyone else in the FDNY. With greater scrutiny, this impact should be that more of us will stay in the department and others will have a better chance to be employed by FDNY. These things take time. Realistically, if the numbers represent the amount that file and pass the exam, in due time, we will clearly represent this city. I don’t expect it to happen over night.”
No one from the FDNY was available for comment, while the New York City Law Department issued a generic statement.
“We strongly disagree with the judge’s opinion and conclusions and are reviewing the draft remedial order,” said Michael A. Cardozo, corporation counsel of the Law Department. “We will respond on October 17, as directed by the court, and will appeal as soon as the law allows.”
“They were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, but yet they want to appeal. At some point you would hope city residents would get disgusted, tired, get motivated, inspired and just tell the city, ‘We don’t want our tax dollars spent this way,’” said Coombs.
“We want the mayor to be responsible; acknowledge the shortcomings of the FDNY, his administration and move forward to ensure that tomorrow is a lot better than it is today. He should do that by ensuring that diversity occurs in the FDNY and not create more barriers by creating more court dates.”