FDNY Commish: Let Me Handle Recruitment

Newsday - August 10, 2011

by JOHN RILEY

FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano told U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis during a hearing Tuesday that he opposed court involvement in the running of the fire department and didn't want the judge to appoint a monitor to oversee recruitment and treatment of minorities.

"I think it would usurp some of my authority as a commissioner," Cassano testified in Brooklyn federal court. "I think city government works best when decisions are made at the agency level."

Ruling in a suit brought by the Vulcan Society, a black firefighters' group, Garaufis last year found a pattern of discrimination at the fire department, which is only 3 percent black, and ordered the city to design and administer new tests. The city population is 26 percent black. Garaufis is now considering additional steps, including court oversight of recruitment, the "fitness" vetting of applicants who pass the test, and the FDNY's system for responding to internal discrimination complaints. Over the city's objection, he ordered Cassano to appear.

Cassano said minority recruitment for the upcoming test was outpacing 2007, when the last test was administered, without court intervention. He said this recruitment campaign was emphasizing the benefits of the job, rather than its "excitement," and included appearances at black churches and a radio campaign on minority stations that is about to kick off.

So far, 15.2 percent of the applicants are black -- up from 8.4 percent in 2007 -- and 40 percent are minorities, Cassano said. Sign-ups continue until Sept. 15. "We don't need any injunctive relief," he told Garaufis. "We're doing a good job."

Cassano also said there was no need for changes in the character review of candidates who pass the test, which the Vulcans say is tilted against minorities, and said he has, on his own, reduced a backlog of anti-discrimination complaints.

At the end of questioning by lawyers for the city and the Vulcan Society, he fielded a series of pointed questions from Garaufis. He noted that federal court orders dating back to 1973 had failed to raise the percentage of blacks, and asked Cassano about a picture on the FDNY website of the department's division commanders -- without a single black. Cassano said recruitment was the key to bringing minorities into a circle that had historically stayed largely white because of family ties. "The benefits of the job are told and handed down," he said. "They see the benefits -- the father's a firefighter, the uncle's a firefighter."

While drawing a line on his authority, Cassano's demeanor was nonconfrontational. He bristled only once, when a lawyer for the Vulcans asked why New York's police department -- which is 50 percent minority -- historically outpaced the FDNY. "I run the fire department, not the police department," Cassano said.

Outside court, he declined to analyze the difference further.

"We recruit as many as we can to file," he told reporters. "Then it's up to the candidates. . . . There is responsibility to study, to take the tutorial and to do the hard work."