BWI faces claims of racism in hiring

Firefighter files EEOC charges against airport fire department

Only one African-American is a supervisor

Arundel NAACP calls for panel to review recruiting, promotions

September 03, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP is calling for a task force to investigate accusations that Baltimore-Washington International Airport's fire department isn't doing enough to promote and recruit blacks.

The civil rights organization alleges that no blacks have been promoted to supervisory positions in two decades.

Officials with the Maryland Department of Transportation, which oversees the fire department, said they have not confirmed the charges. "We have not received any information from any regulatory agencies that indicate there are [discrimination] problems," said Debra Carter, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Transportation.

State officials say they're open to investigating some of the concerns but won't do so until the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules on a discrimination charge filed by a black firefighter who has repeatedly said he was denied promotions by the BWI Fire & Rescue Department. That doesn't sit well with leaders of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People.

"I've been doing civil rights work a long time, and I've never heard of a single case where one complaint stopped an investigation," said Carl O. Snowden, a local civil rights activist who serves as an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens. "I think it says volumes about [the lack of] commitment that the department has for providing equality opportunities for people."

Gerald G. Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel chapter of the NAACP, said: "Simply by the number of complaints that we've gotten, I'm very concerned and I'd like to see something done."

A former Annapolis alderman, Snowden is seeking to form a task force similar to one that he co-chaired that reviewed the hiring practices of that city's fire department. That panel found the city's fire department failed to show a "meaningful commitment" to the recruitment, promotion or advancement of minorities over two decades.

The Baltimore Fire Department faced criticism in April 2004 when it hired its first all-white class of recruits since the department integrated in 1953. The incident prompted the department to make wholesale changes to its hiring practices.

At BWI, nine of the department's 85 employees are black. One black is in a supervisory role - a division chief hired from the outside in December 2000.

Theodore Robb, an 18-year veteran of the department, who filed the EEOC discrimination charge, said: "They don't want African-Americans in staff and command positions - and that has created a phase in the department where people like me have not been given the opportunities to be mentored."

Robb has filed multiple EEOC charges against the department. Carter stressed that none of Robb's charges have resulted in a favorable ruling for Robb. The EEOC does not comment on individuals cases, a spokeswoman said. Most recently, Robb filed a fourth charge alleging discrimination and retaliation as a result of his earlier complaints. Robb says the first charge ended in mediation, the second one was never investigated, and that he did not pursue the third because he'd been called by the Navy to serve in Guantanamo Bay. If the EEOC decides a charge does not have merit, it does not investigate it.

Other black firefighters named in NAACP letters declined comment or could not be reached. Two firefighters at the department, one black and one white, said in interviews that they had seen qualified blacks overlooked for promotions and believed some faced retaliation from the department. Both firefighters asked not to be identified for fear of retribution at work.

Ricky D. Smith, the senior deputy executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, a division of the MTA, vigorously denied any "effort organized or otherwise to keep African Americans out" of the department.

State officials concede that there is room for improvement in some areas. "We do need to do more as management to try and attract and develop minorities," said Smith, who, like Carter, is African-American.

"We've made some progress [attracting minorities], and the challenge has been to train and develop those minorities so that they can be eligible for management level."

The fire department has forged a relationship with a predominantly African-American school in Baltimore with a fire fighter training program, and officials hope to recruit graduates. State officials say they're also recruiting from other fire departments in predominantly African-American communities, Smith said.

Smith said any formal investigation or commission would need to wait until Robb's EEOC charge is ruled upon to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The NAACP had repeatedly asked for such an investigation for six months before Robb's complaint was filed. The current dispute is not the first time questions have surfaced about hiring practices at the BWI Fire & Rescue Department.

In August 2001, the firefighters union had a vote of no confidence in the department management, alleging that the it was managed by politically connected friends of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening with no background in aviation safety.

Then-Chief Thomas D. Mack and his deputy, John M. Norris, both left the department several months after the vote. The new chief, Woodrow W. Cullum, who was unavailable for comment, was promoted from within the department.

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