Mayor Eric Garcetti did it once and he should do it again. The “it” is the moratorium he slapped on the Los Angeles City Fire Department in March 2014 to block new hires.
He should slap another moratorium on the department. He should do it for the same reason that he imposed the moratorium on new hires then. Exactly one year later, the fire department still has not cleaned up its act.
It still is a mostly white, male, good old boy preserve. Blacks and Latinos are still grossly underrepresented in firefighter ranks. For women, it’s even more of an embarrassment.
In the 20-year period since 1995, women have never made up more than 3 percent of the city’s fire department. Here’s how bad it is. Of the nearly 70 recruits that were hired in 2014, there was only one woman in the bunch. Even that didn’t last long. She eventually dropped out.
So the record on hires that year stood at a big goose egg for women. It got even worse.
One third of the new hires were relatives of current firefighters. This was blatant in-your-face nepotism.
It’s not hard to see how that happened. The family members are prepped. They have an idea of what and how to take the written and oral tests, what the physical requirements are and how to meet them, and most importantly, a direct family pipeline to when applications are being accepted and the time frame for getting them in.
The favoritism on testing is hardly speculation. The L.A. County Fire Department was back on the hot seat recently with the revelation that firefighters in the department routinely clued prospective firefighter candidates that were relatives on what and how to take the exams. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is hardly unique in this underhanded and blatantly unfair ploy to keep fire departments white and male.
Fire departments in other cities have repeatedly been hit with bias complaints, lawsuits and injunctions to stop the age-old practice of giving recruits — white, male relatives — cheat sheets on the tests and the physical requirements.
The New York Fire Department settled a landmark bias suit with the Justice Department in 2014. Departments know that they are increasingly being watched because of their long running exclusion of women and minorities for the station houses.
They have paid much lip service to diversity. But the paucity of women and minorities in nearly all big city fire departments still tells the sorry tale of evasion, obfuscation, denial and outright discrimination to keep departments virtually lily white and very male.
Fire officials have pulled one more card from the pile to keep their cozy, good old boy club just that. They have turned the tables and wail that if there are few women and minorities in the station houses, they aren’t to blame. They can’t help it if they won’t apply or flunk the tests.
The L.A. Fire Department example is the best answer to this bogus and self-serving claim that they simply don’t apply. Thousands did, but their applications were excluded from the applicant pool because they weren’t received in the first 60 seconds of the filing period. That’s right 60 seconds!
Houdini would have been hard pressed to get in and get out with an application trick within that ridiculous time. The claim that they can’t pass the physical standards, especially in the case of women, is just as fraudulent. If you already know what the physical tests are, and what has to be done to pass them, you don’t have to be an Olympic gold-medal-winning decathlete to skate through that part of it.
The brutal truth is that fire departments historically have been protective havens that provide good pay, benefits, and near life-time employment for generations of white males — grandfathers, fathers and their sons. City administrations, be it New York or Los Angeles and big and small cities in between, have aided and abetted the status quo at the station houses with a wink and nod at their overt or subtle discriminatory ploys to keep the station houses white and male.
At the same time, cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and, of course, Los Angeles have become anything but a majority of white male populations.
Mayor Garcetti got it right a year ago when he challenged the department to start looking like the city that it serves. It didn’t work then. But he can make it work this time by imposing a hard moratorium on hires and in addition revamping the application, testing, and physical requirements process to root out bias and cheating and ensure a fair and level playing field for all applicants.
L.A. is one of the nation’s most diverse cities, and the fire department is a public agency. The L.A. Fire Department must not be the exception to that any longer.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network and is the author of “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press). Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.