Federal Judge Rules FDNY Needs Greater Oversight

NY Post - October 06, 2011

by MITCHEL MADDUX and PHILIP MESSING

A federal judge today ruled that broader judicial oversight of New York City's fire department is needed to ensure that minority firefighters and job applicants are fairly treated.

Brooklyn federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis released his ruling after presiding over a special trial focusing on the issue, concluding that the Vulcan Society -- an organization representing the city's black firefighters -- largely had proven their claims that minorities trying to become firefighters suffer disadvantages that go beyond the applicant testing process.

In a sweeping and highly-detailed ruling, the judge outlined specific remedies for these problems in a decision that mandates broader oversight of the nation's largest fire department.

"Though the City's use of discriminatory hiring practices has persisted through numerous changes in City leadership, the evidence adduced in this case gives the court little hope that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg or any of his senior leadership has any intention of stepping up to the task of ending discrimination at the FDNY," he said.

The judge added, "The clear evidence of disparate impact that Mayor Bloomberg and his senior leadership chose to ignore was obvious to anyone else who looked. Instead of facing hard facts and asking hard questions about the City's abysmal track record of hiring black and Hispanic firefighters, the Bloomberg Administration dug in and fought back.

"The only reason that the court today considers how to end the City's discriminatory hiring practices and eliminate their lasting effects is that a coalition of black New York City firefighters and President George W. Bush's attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, decided their only recourse was to sue the City of New York to make it stop."

The judge said he envisions the ruling will have far-ranging affect on the FDNY, saying he "contemplates that the court will retain jurisdiction over the remedial phase of this litigation for at least ten years."

Garaufis said he plans to name a special court-appointed monitor to oversee all aspects of hiring, training, and promotion practices for new firefighters at the FDNY.

"The City of New York shall, with reasonable diligence, take all steps necessary to eliminate the vestiges of its pattern and practice of discrimination against black firefighter candidates, to remove all barriers to the elimination of these vestiges of discrimination, and to end all policies and practices that have the effect of perpetuating the effects of the City's discrimination against black firefighter candidates," the judge wrote in today's opinion.

The judge also voiced sharp criticism for Mayor Bloomberg and FDNY leadership, saying that despite overwhelming evidence that the fire department's "practices were discriminatory ... Mayor Bloomberg and the city's last two fire commissioners ... did nothing" to correct the problem.

The judge's ruling comes just two months after ranking department brass testified at the special bench trial, which focused on how the FDNY can attract more minority applicants to an agency overwhelmingly staffed by white firefighters.

In a related finding of fact issued last week, the judge deemed that a "formal recruitment program" at the FDNY is necessary and criticized the city for doing too little and devoting too few resources to address the longstanding problem.

Garaufis addressed these allegations in his opinion, saying that FDNY must "change the perception that the job is available only to white male candidates."

The judge's opinion draws heavily from the August hearings, which included testimony about several racist incidents at city fire stations.

Other damaging charges this summer highlighted the dominance of "old boy network" connections in FDNY's hiring practices, where friends, relatives, or neighbors were favored over minority applicants without inside Fire Department connections.

The judge's order today hits directly at the center of this issue and orders the FDNY's Personnel Review Board "to adopt policies and procedures regarding the participation of [its] members who have a potential conflict of interest with respect to any candidate under review."

The department's Personnel Review Board is responsible for hiring firefighters, but testimony at the August bench trial revealed that panel members sometimes recommend candidates they personally know - raising questions about potential conflicts of interest and fairness.

City officials immediately announced that they will appeal the ruling.

"We strongly disagree with the judge's opinion and conclusions, and are reviewing the draft remedial order...and will appeal as soon as the law allows," said Michael A. Cardozo, New York City's Corporation Counsel.

The judge's opinion is yet another development stemming from a 2007 lawsuit filed against the fire department by the US Justice Department, with the aim of forcing the city to hire more minorities at an agency where white men make up 93 percent of the 11,000 firefighters in its ranks.

Garaufis has ruled previously that the FDNY's entrance test unfairly discriminates against black and Hispanic applicants.

Mary Jo White, the former Manhattan US attorney appointed as a special master to create a new FDNY entrance exam, said in a separate report on Friday that her efforts to create an entrance test that's more fair are proceeding on schedule for early 2012.

City officials have pointed out that their efforts to redress the imbalance in the FDNY's ranks has been paying off, as they focused recruitment efforts on New York's neighborhoods with diverse populations.

Roughly half of the applicants who want to take the city's upcoming firefighter exam are minorities, city officials say, and the judge has acknowledged that such numbers are record-breaking.