NYC Says FDNY Test Not Discriminatory

The fire department in New York is one of the most respected in the world and the second largest after Tokyo's.

The FDNY has well over 11,000 firefighters and officers and their heroism on Sept. 11 and many other occasions is legendary. But a federal judge says something is missing in their ranks. Diversity.

A federal judge says New York City is resisting efforts to correct longstanding discrimination in its hiring practices of the FDNY. For many, the letters FDNY spell heroism. The judge says not when it comes to racial relations.

New York City fire captain Paul Washington has a big problem with his department.

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"This fire department has been all white, lily white, for almost 150 years now," he said. "It has to end."

Eight years ago the fire department was 92 percent white and only 2.8 percent black in a city that was 24 percent black, a disparity that remains largely unchanged, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod. A group of black firefighters sued.

"We're in a tough situation because the fire department on one hand is tremendously heroic and the whole world knows about its heroism. And on the other hand we have this singular embarrassment," said Suzanna Goldberg from Columbia Law School.

Last January a federal judge agreed, ruling the hiring test to become one of New York's bravest was not just discriminatory but illegal. He ordered the city to fix it.

"Blacks don't fare as well as whites on this test, probably due to the disparity of education," said Washington.

Now the judge says the city "has been dragging its feet" and he tightened the screws, appointing a special master to ensure New York does what big cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami did long ago when they were sued.

They now have much greater diversity. But FDNY deputy chief Paul Mannix doesn't think New York needs to follow their example.

When asked about how Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Boston corrected their racial imbalances, Mannix had a one word answer: "Quotas," he said.

When told that whatever the method is, it worked, he said, "By using quotas. And we are against quotas."

Miami in particular expanded recruitment by targeting young minorities still in public schools with high school EMT training classes. Today they have firefighters like Maurice Kemp to show for it. That's Chief Maurice Kemp, the department's first African-American in charge.

Kemp said, "Like all other major city departments, it doesn't come without a struggle. I mean, we have to be conscious of the fact that we need to be diverse."

Mannix thinks the current FDNY test focuses too much on producing a racially diverse department and not enough on identifying the strongest candidates regardless of race.

"You're asking me to make my job more dangerous to satisfy a social engineering experiment," said Mannix.

Mannix doesn't officially speak for the city but the fire department and the mayor both declined our request for an interview. In a statement, the city said, "The city disagrees with the court's findings that these tests were discriminatory and intends to appeal."

The city says next time it hires, the incoming class will be one-third minority but no firefighters have been hired in the last two years and currently there are no plans to do so.

"I find it shocking the fire department looks like it does today and the city is fighting the decision and threatening appeal rather than going ahead and giving the city the department it deserves," said Goldberg.

"I want to see black New Yorkers share in this job because, like I say, it's not a good job. It's a great job," said Washington.

The only thing Paul Washington wants to change about this "great" job is the way New York City decides who gets it.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.