By Alana Horowitz
Mayor Bloomberg and former fire commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta were not held liable in this week’s ruling against the FDNY’s discriminatory hiring practices, but a federal judge called their behavior “deliberately indifferent.”
Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that, when it comes to potential New York City firefighters, “blacks and other minorities face entry barriers that other applicants do not,” and the failure of the city to address the problem is a violation of the 14th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act and basic human rights laws.
The lawsuit had been filed on behalf of the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, and Garaufis agreed with the Society that racial inequality within the FDNY has spanned decades. In 1963, 4.15 percent of all FDNY employees were black and in 2007, it was down to 3.4 percent. Black residents make up over a quarter of the city’s population. The Vulcans said they had tried for years to remedy the disparity, meeting with both Bloomberg and Scoppetta, but were largely ignored.
“There’s no shortage of solutions,” said past Vulcan Society President Paul Washington. “Every solution we proposed to the city was ignored.”
Washington said the Vulcans had approached the city several times since 1999 to change or remove the firefighter entrance exams that a federal judge ruled in July were biased against blacks and had little bearing on a person’s ability to fight fires.
“The fire department is not a family business, it’s a city agency,” said John Coombs, current president of the Vulcan Society. Washington said they proposed in 2006 that the city give extra points on the exam to graduates of New York City schools.
“It’s a good way to bring in people of color,” said Washington.
Washington said the city seemed to think it was a good idea, but never acted on it.
Another tool to promote diversity that the city squandered was the Cadet Corps. Started in October of 1996, the program was designed to provide CUNY students, especially minorities, with fire safety and EMT training. Though the Cadet Corps succeeded in boosting applicant diversity, Coombs said, it was abolished.
The Vulcan Society also encouraged more active minority recruitment. Washington said they met with Bloomberg in 2002 and asked that the city spend more money attracting black and Hispanic firefighters, through advertisements, grassroots marketing and a larger presence in the city’s minority communities. Bloomberg again ignored their suggestions, said Washington, and claimed extra recruitment was unnecessary. At the time, only 2.6 percent of firefighters were black.
“The city has kept blinders tightly in place to avoid recognizing and dealing with a problem of discrimination that has been shockingly clear to all citizens of New York,” said Richard Levy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
In the April of 2003, the Equal Employment Practices Commission sent Bloomberg a report examining the FDNY’s unwillingness to reconsider its minority hiring policies. In October, Bloomberg replied that he was “satisfied that the Fire Department has adequately addressed the points raised in the EEPC’s report.”
Bloomberg admitted at a Thursday morning press conference that the city’s biggest mistake was insufficient recruiting, though he was “very disappointed” with the court’s ruling.
“If the city were a therapy patient, we’d say it was suffering from severe denial,” said Levy.