2011-10-07 / Top Stories

Garaufis: Who You Know Really Counts

Knocks FDNY For ‘Old Boy’ Network
By Howard Schwach

On Friday, Brooklyn federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis, after presiding over a special trial focusing on the fire department hiring, concluded that the Vulcan Society – an organization representing the city’s black firefighters – largely had proven their claims that minorities trying to become firefighters suffer disadvantages that go beyond the applicant testing process. In fact, the judge said, when it comes to fire department hiring, it’s who you know and not what you know that really counts.

Although the judge plans to issue a second decision outlining specific remedies for these problems in the near future, the decision suggests that broader oversight of the nation’s largest fire department is already in the cards.

“The court cannot adequately ensure the city’s compliance with applicable equal employment opportunity laws and policies ... in the absence of court supervision,” the judge wrote.

His findings clear the way for the possible appointment of a special courtappointed monitor to oversee all aspects of hiring, training and promotion practices for new firefighters at the city’s fire department.

The judge’s opinion comes just two months after ranking department brass testified at the special bench trial, which focused on how the FDNY can attract more minority applicants to an agency overwhelmingly staffed by white firefighters.

A “formal recruitment program” is necessary, the judge wrote, in an 80- page opinion that faulted the city for doing too little and devoting too few resources to address the longstanding problem.

“The court finds ... that the under-representation of black firefighters in the FDNY — a direct result and vestige of the city’s pattern and practice of discrimination against black firefighter candidates — is responsible for making blacks significantly less likely to apply to become New York City firefighters,” the judge wrote.

Garaufis said that FDNY and city officials had tried to downplay the problem, saying “the city’s culture of bureaucratic blame-shifting and accountability avoidance [shows] ... that the city does not want to be held accountable for the results of its recruitment efforts. This is unacceptable.”

The judge’s written findings draw heavily from the August hearings, which included testimony about several racist incidents at city fire stations.

Other damaging charges this summer highlighted the dominance of “old boy network” connections in FDNY’s hiring practices, where friends, relatives or neighbors were favored over minority applicants without inside Fire Department connections.

Garaufis addressed these allegations, saying that FDNY must “change the perception that the job is available only to white male candidates.”

City officials disagreed with the Judge, as they have throughout the four-year-long proceedings.

“We respectfully disagree with some of the court’s findings and are continuing to study this lengthy 81-page decision. The next steps the City will take depend on what the judge’s subsequent rulings are regarding remedial steps,” said Georgia Pestana, a city attorney.

The judge’s opinion is yet another development stemming from a 2007 lawsuit filed against the fire department by the US Justice Department, with the aim of forcing the city to hire more minorities at an agency where white men make up 93 percent of the 11,000 firefighters in its ranks.

Garaufis had ruled previously that the FDNY’s entrance test unfairly discriminates against black and Hispanic applicants.

Mary Jo White, the former Manhattan US attorney appointed as a special master to create a new FDNY entrance exam, said in a separate report yesterday that her efforts to create an entrance test that’s more fair are proceeding on schedule for early 2012.

City officials say their efforts to redress the imbalance in the FDNY’s ranks have been paying off, as they focused recruitment efforts on New York’s neighborhoods with diverse populations.

Roughly half of the applicants who want to take the city’s upcoming firefighter exam are minorities, city officials say, and the judge acknowledged that such numbers are record-breaking.

Despite that, the Vulcan Society issued a statement that changes in the FDNY are still necessary.

“In 150 years of the FDNY, they have proved that they can’t be trusted to do it themselves,” said Paul Washington, the former president of the society. “They were never going to change on their own. It seems that the judge really gets how the FDNY operates. There are many reasons why black firefighters don’t feel comfortable about applying for the job.”

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