Judge: New York City Discriminatory in Fire Department Hiring

January 15, 2010

A federal judge Wednesday slammed the city for adopting hiring practices at the fire department he said were designed to keep blacks from joining the force.

In his ruling, Judge Nicholas Garaufis said the city’s use of written exams was part of a pattern of intentional discrimination against blacks in violation of the Civil Rights Act and equal protection clause.

The practice “has deep historical antecedents and uniquely disabling effects,” he wrote. The ruling follows a decision in July by Garaufis that said the written exams used to screen and rank applicants were discriminatory. The department has about 350 black firefighters out of 11,500 total.

The judge said the FDNY serves the city with “uncommon bravery, skill and determination.” But the issue of race is the department’s one persistent stain, he said.

The Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2002 alleging the FDNY discriminated in its hiring by using exams that were not necessary to prove an applicant’s skill at becoming a firefighter.

The EEOC turned the information over to the Justice Department, which investigated and sued the city.

The judge dismissed claims that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former FDNY commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta and the FDNY intentionally discriminated. He let stand the claim against the city.

The city’s Law Department said in a statement it was pleased by the dismissed claims, but “vehemently disagrees with the balance” of the decision Wednesday.

“Contrary to the court’s opinion, it is the city’s view that there is simply no evidence that the city ever intended to discriminate against black applicants,” city lawyer Georgia Pestana said in a statement. “Moreover, the decision ignores controlling Supreme Court and Second Circuit law regarding intentional discrimination.”

The ruling paves the way for the judge work on a remedy. The city cannot appeal the decision until a final judgment is entered in the case. Paul Washington, the former head of the Vulcan Society who filed the initial EEOC complaint, said he hoped for a resolution.

“We’re glad to see that what we’ve been saying now for the longest time has been verified by the justice system,” he said. “New York City has, and it’s not just decades, it’s 145 years, discriminated against blacks in its hiring. There are thousands upon thousands of blacks who should’ve been firefighters who aren’t.”

Washington hopes the judge will issue a consent decree that will monitor the number of black firefighters hired until it reflects the overall city population. The FDNY is currently 3 percent black. The city is roughly 23 percent non-Hispanic black, according to 2008 census estimates, and 35 percent non-Hispanic white.

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