Monitor ordered to watch over NY Fire Dept. hiring

October 5, 2011 - 5:55 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — An independent monitor must be appointed to watch over an effort to make the Fire Department of New York more diverse, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Nicholas Garaufis gave his findings Wednesday following a civil trial last month in Brooklyn where high-ranking fire officials testified on the inner workings of the nation's largest department.

In his ruling, Garaufis said the monitor would oversee aspects of recruiting efforts and will audit and investigate compliance. The monitor will have the authority to perform independent investigations of the hiring process for new firefighters.

He had already decided the city's firefighter entrance exam discriminated against minorities.

"This lawsuit is on the most recent effort in what amounts to a nearly forty-year struggle to integrate the fire department," Garaufis wrote. "While the city's other uniformed services and fire departments across the country have changed to reflect the communities they serve, employment as a New York City firefighter ... remained a stubborn bastion of white male privilege."

In a city of 8 million where more than half the population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, 9 percent of the 11,200 uniformed firefighters are black or Hispanic.

The city's law department said it would appeal as soon as the law allowed.

"We strongly disagree with the judge's opinion and conclusions, and are reviewing the draft remedial order," said Michael A. Cardozo, head of the law department.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded Wednesday by saying no previous administration has done more to attract diversity to the FDNY.

"Our commissioners have worked ceaselessly, tirelessly to make sure that everybody, every community, knows what a great job this is and try 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," the mayor added.

A black fraternal FDNY organization called the Vulcan Society complained about a decade ago, charging that the exam given to FDNY applicants was littered with SAT-like questions that didn't adequately test for firefighting skills. The exam is the weightiest factor in determining whether a candidate gets on a hiring list; a physical test and a few other components also play a role.

The Justice Department eventually took up the case and sued, and Garaufis ruled in 2009 in favor of the Vulcan Society and the Justice Department. In a separate decision, the judge said the test was being used to discriminate intentionally and called it a "stain" on an otherwise sterling department.

"That this discrimination has been allowed to persist in New York City for so long is a shameful blight on the records of the six mayors of this city who failed to take responsibility for doing what was necessary to end it," Garaufis said.

Darius Charney, an attorney for the Vulcan Society, said the court monitor was the beginning of long-overdue changes that could transform the department.

"I think it's clear from today's decision that the city is going to have to do a lot more than fix the test to remedy 40 years of discrimination against black and Hispanic firefighter candidates."

No new firefighters are being hired until the new exam — which is supposed to be given in January 2012.

Meanwhile, the city has made strides in recruiting minority candidates — an effort it says was not brought on by the legal fight. Applicants no longer need college credits and can apply if they graduated from high school and held a full-time job for six months or served in the military.

Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano testified that the department has recruited almost twice as many black candidates for its upcoming exam as it did for the last one as it steps up its outreach to minorities. Cassano said nearly 17,000 people applied to take the test and 15 percent were black — compared with only 8 percent for the last test, in 2007. The overall number of minority applicants stayed steady at 40 percent. The application period ended Sept. 15.

Garaufis ordered both sides to come up with a list of potential candidates for the monitor position. A hearing will be held Oct. 20.