Racism allegations resurface in Annapolis Fire Department

Percentage of blacks has fallen to 9% despite consent decree in 1986

February 17, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

When Annapolis city leaders agreed to a federal consent decree in 1986 to more than double the number of black firefighters in the Fire Department within five years, they thought it would end a long-simmering court dispute over hiring.

But nearly two decades later, city officials are grappling with the contentious issue again.

City officials had promised a federal judge that they would try to boost the percentage of black firefighters to about 25 percent by 1991. But the share of black firefighters has dropped since 1986, from 12 percent to about 9 percent today.

The consent decree expired in 1999.

"We spent hours and hours working on that and I don't think either party would have agreed to something that they didn't think was fair," said Alan Hilliard Legum, the lawyer who represented the black firefighters during the legal negotiations in 1986 but has not been involved in the issue since. "I don't know where things fell through, but it's a shame that they did."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Feb. 17 about the Annapolis Fire Department's hiring practices incorrectly reported the percentage of black firefighters in the Baltimore County Fire Department. Blacks make up nearly 11 percent of Baltimore County firefighters.

Such concerns have revived an old controversy in this city of about 36,000, with some black firefighters charging that the city broke its word, alleging that some fire officials are racist and calling for the ouster of the fire chief.

Edward P. Sherlock Jr., who has been fire chief since 1987, said he does not tolerate racist behavior in the 101-member department and he believes some of the allegations made by the firefighters arise from personal conflicts. He also criticized a panel formed by the mayor to study the department.

"I was really hoping they would make good recommendations but every other week they just seem to want to take pot shots," Sherlock said.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has stood by the chief, but she says she can understand the firefighters' frustration. She is awaiting the task force report, due next month.

"It's something we are taking seriously," Moyer said.

Annapolis' percentage of black firefighters is in line with neighboring jurisdictions. Annapolis' nine black firefighters make up about 9 percent of the department. That compares with 4 percent in Anne Arundel, 8 percent in Baltimore County and 12 percent in Howard County.

About one in 10 of the nation's nearly 250,000 firefighters are black, according to the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.

The controversy grew out of a federal discrimination complaint filed against the city in 1984 by the Black Fire Fighters Association, a group that represents the city's African-American fighters. The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Negotiations led to the consent decree. As part of the agreement, Annapolis paid $29,000 to the group and agreed to hire more firefighters, but it did not admit any wrongdoing. The black firefighters, in turn, dropped the suit.

Many thought they would see an increase in the number of black firefighters, but the department has never had more than 13 black employees. The consent decree said the department should make a strong effort to recruit African-Americans.

Annapolis was about 25 percent black in 1986 and "the department was supposed to reflect the community," said Lt. Clarence E. Johnson Sr., vice president of the association.

Blacks now make up about one-third of the city population.

Johnson, who was also a recruiter for the department, said Sherlock did not encourage him to attend job fairs and that the association became so disillusioned with the consent decree that they agreed to let it lapse.

The federal judge who handled the case, retired District Court Judge James R. Miller, declined to comment, saying he couldn't remember the case.

Others agreed that Sherlock has done little to promote or hire more minorities.

Vaughn Phillips, who was hired by the city in 1994 to help recruit minority businesses and employees, said a black firefighter would come into his office nearly every week with a complaint about working conditions. "The department was in chaos," he said.

But Phillips said he was stonewalled when he relayed concerns to Sherlock, who would say he didn't have the resources to hire more minorities. Sherlock "never seemed to have the enthusiasm or drive to change the system," said Phillips, who left his job in 1999.

Although Sherlock acknowledged that he heard inappropriate racial comments before becoming chief, he said that he has ordered an investigation into every racist comment he has learned of since then. For example, a white captain was suspended for a month for making inappropriate comments about a black heart attack victim in 1998.

Sherlock also said he tried to recruit minorities and agreed to change the applicant test to include questions and references that were more "minority-friendly."

He argued that he has been hampered by the department's relatively low pay scale. The starting salary for an Annapolis firefighter is $31,547 a year.

"We're a small department and we have to compete with everyone," Sherlock said. "It's hard to do with limited resources."

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