A fire department's racial woes Balto. Co. target of federal bias probe

March 01, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Justice Department investigation of Baltimore County's Fire Department -- almost two decades after a federal job-discrimination suit against the county -- is the latest sign of the department's sluggish progress on racial issues, county officials and black firefighters say.

The department's top brass remains almost all white. And, although more blacks have joined the department since the suit was settled, and fair-practices policies and training have been instituted, blacks say not enough has been done.

They point to an all-white staff at the training academy, the perception of discrimination in transfers and promotions, and a feeling among the department's 75 blacks, some of them civilians, that they face indifference and even hostility from some of the department's more than 1,000 whites.

Those could be among the issues that prompted the Justice Department investigation of alleged discrimination, which county officials say began in January. Federal officials have not said what led to the investigation.

"They're just not following their own policy," said James W. Artis Jr., a firefighter and former training academy instructor who, as president of the Guardian Knights, a group of black firefighters, helped inspire the department's 3-year-old fair-practices policy.

The county Office of Fair Practices, in a Feb. 11 memo to the new fire chief, John F. O'Neill, noted that two years after the department said there was a need to include blacks and women on internal promotional boards, "no steps appear to have been taken."

About the same time, the department issued a general order requiring that all internal transfers be routed though panels trained in fair practices.

The federal investigation -- which follows by a little more than a year a 1996 incident in which a noose was found hanging in a black firefighter's gear at the Towson station -- illustrates the challenge facing O'Neill.

He and other top county officials say racial progress must be a top priority for the department.

"I don't think fair practices should ever be off the radar screen," said Michael H. Davis, spokesman and policy chief for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "One of the reasons Dutch picked Chief O'Neill is that he has a long history with fair practices."

Artis, Lt. Glenn Blackwell and other black firefighters say fair practices long ago dropped to the bottom of the department's priority list.

In 1978, when the Justice Department sued the county government alleging job discrimination, there were two black firefighters among 726.

The chief at that time was Paul Reincke, who has admitted telling a racially offensive joke in his office to four white fire officials in late 1996. Reincke was chief from 1976 to 1990 and from June 1996 to October last year.

The department now has 62 uniformed blacks, but more than 90 percent of the force is white in a county where blacks make up 15 percent of the population. Of 303 members of the department above the rank of lieutenant, three are black.

O'Neill, Reincke and other county officials say a number of factors have slowed the recruitment and advancement of blacks in recent years.

Budget pressures have limited hiring in general, and there has been only one recruit class in the past several years, they say. In addition, they say, the few black officers at the training academy were forced back into fire stations along with other training officers because of budget pressures.

Rigid promotion rules limit management's ability to promote blacks to increase diversity, officials say. And some black officers say black firefighters sometimes are reluctant to seek promotions that would take them out of comfortable niches.

County officials say they are looking forward to next year, when a quirk in retirement rules is expected to prompt more 60 firefighters to leave, possibly opening the way for more diversity.

Kevin B. O'Connor, president of Local 1311 of the Baltimore County Fire Fighters Association, said the department's problems result less from racial bias than from budget pressures and inadequate staffing and facilities. That is one reason the training academy staff is all white and all male, he said.

"They chopped the academy. They decided they could train people by videotape. It's very true that there's not an African-American or a woman instructor, but the reason is they reduced staffing," O'Connor said.

Artis and other black leaders reject that view, saying the union defends the status quo.

The black firefighters' group criticizes the department's hiatus in sensitivity training from December 1996 to December last year.

John Parham, the department's fair-practices officer, said he halted the training because of a disagreement over whether various ranks should be trained together or separately. Training resumed this year and will be completed in May.

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