Black Firefighters, Paramedics Call for DOJ Investigation into CFD

An organization that represents 200 of Chicago's black firefighters and paramedics says the department needs a new boss and a federal investigation.

The group called on the mayor's office and the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved over the problems they have with the department's hiring and discipline practices.

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Brandis Friedman has more on this story.

They says it's a problem they've had in the fire department for years – not enough black firefighters in the ranks or leadership, despite a court consent decree dating back to 1980.

The group is called the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League. They say under that decree, the fire department should be 30 percent African-American – equivalent to the black population of Chicago.

But that's not the case – the group says of the total 4,800 firefighters and medics on the force, 783 are black – a total of just under 17 percent.

They say that's down from the 1,000 black members back in 1980.

During today's press conference, the group called on the mayor to fire Commissioner Jose Santiago. And they're asking the U.S. Department of Justice to add the fire department to its existing investigation into the police department.

Members of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League speak out on Thursday. (Brandis Friedman)Members of the African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League speak out on Thursday. (Brandis Friedman)

“They negotiated with the city a contract that would call for 30 percent of African-Americans to be hired in every rank. In 36 years, the city has never lived up to that contract,” said of Lt. Gregory Boggs of African-American Firefighters and Paramedics League. “We are calling now on the Justice Department to look at the hiring practices of the city of Chicago. We want the Justice Department to come in before any more hiring is done.

“We have people who have taken the test in 2014, and have been told that they failed the test but they cannot get their results. Some of them are college graduates, and we're talking about a test that was written at an 8th grade level."

The group says they've met repeatedly with Fire Commissioner Santiago about this over the last five years, but have been unsatisfied with the outcome of those meetings, and say that's why they're taking this step.

Disciplinary actions

The group says the district has issued far more disciplinary actions against the black officers than others.

In 2015, they say the black firefighters received 1,800 disciplinary actions and that 40 percent of them were reversed.

They gave a few examples from over the years, and one of those firefighters, the first woman to command fire academy operations said she was demoted back in 2011 for reporting a colleague who she believed was acting inappropriately at work.

Capt. Carmelita Wiley-EarlsCapt. Carmelita Wiley-Earls "I step forward to let you know that I am not necessarily afraid of retaliation," said Capt. Carmelita Wiley-Earls of the CFD. "However, I am sick of putting my uniform on every day, going to a firehouse to represent and serve the citizens of Chicago, only to be apprised – or should I say retaliated [against] on various fronts.

"I'm asking the justice department: I'm your poster child. Pull my record. Tell me what have I done to create, or should I say deserve, what I've gotten. I'm not the only one but I'm brave enough to step forward."

A source in the Chicago Fire Department says that her account isn't entirely true, that she actually asked to be removed from that post at the academy. This was after she was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer – that's a charge that she has called egregious.

City’s response

The city says it's already working with the Department of Justice because of that 1980 consent decree as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Adam Collins, a spokesperson for the city, issued this statement in response:

"The Mayor and the Commissioner agree that the equal treatment and equal opportunity the League calls for are critically important. That is why we have taken important steps to ensure the makeup of department better reflects the makeup of the city, including welcoming a new class of firefighters that had been wrongly shut out of the fire department in previous decades. Additionally, it’s important to note that CFD is already under DOJ oversight with respect to their promotional tests since 1980. Beyond that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been investigating CFD since August 2012, and CFD has been partnering closely with them on their work."

Some other steps the city says it's taken to ensure a diverse force include increasing training opportunities for women and minorities to the point that in 2012, the minority and women selected for specialized positions in the fire department equaled or exceeded the rates of white men who were selected.

It also gives preference to Chicago Public Schools graduates to be sure the department reflects the community.

Currently, the fire department is in the process of hiring several hundred applicants from the new list created by the last exam in 2014 and plans to have to have three new classes of firefighters this year, and at least two classes for single-role paramedics as well.

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