A federal judge recently agreed to dissolve the 42-year-old court’s mandate on minority employment within the Chicago Fire Department, finding that minority representation had increased significantly since it was implemented in the early 1980’s.
While federal officials viewed the increase in “minority” employees, some current and retired black firefighters yelled, saying their manpower numbers continued to shrink due to slow hiring of black recruits and high black retirements among commanding officers.
Last Thursday, US District Judge Rebecca Palmier in the Northern District of Illinois approved a joint request between the federal prosecutors overseeing the long-standing Albrecht ordinance and the city’s attorney that ended the March 1980 ordinance named for former Commissioner Richard Albrecht.
“This court has found that representation of minorities in every promotional rank in the Chicago Fire Department has increased significantly since the entry of the Albrecht Ordinance,” Palmier wrote in a short ruling.
“The court also found that the City of Chicago made good faith efforts to comply with the ordinance, and rescinding the ordinance would not limit or impede future challenges to alleged job discrimination in CFD.”
The ruling ends the decree that focused on the employment of minorities in high-ranking positions. Palmier’s ruling came six days after prosecutors submitted an 18-page proposal for a solution, citing increased minority representation and cooperation with the fire department. Soon the city joined the movement. Authorities said they hired an outside consultant “as needed” to provide expertise in helping them review technical materials provided by the city.
Federal authorities argued that Albrecht’s solution would not reduce the city’s obligations to provide equal employment opportunity under the Congressional discrimination protections known as Title VII.
In a statement to the “Tribune” newspaper, the city’s law department praised the termination of the decree. “Refusal of the ordinance will enable the City to efficiently terminate existing eligibility lists where appropriate and to adopt new lists expeditiously. The City remains committed to continued progress.” The Chicago Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois referred the comments to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, which handled the case, but a Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The ruling came as bitter news for black retirees who had long fought a regime against minority firefighters, especially African Americans, whose numbers had fallen into certain ranks.
In April, an analysis of fire department employee records by the Tribune found that black firefighters had slipped into third place with only 422 in 4,800 uniformed members, or about 15%. This was down from 16.5% in 2016. Firefighter-EMT is the most popular rank in the division. Hispanic firefighters, who were 13.5% of firefighters in 2016, are now the second largest group at 18%.
“Oh my God,” Ezra McCann, the retired black fire captain, said upon hearing Tuesday that the decree had been dissolved. McCann, who joined the department in 1977, dismissed the government’s findings, saying they had not interviewed or spoken to any of the black members who had long advocated the cause of increased black employment and promotion. “It’s a bad move.”
McCann is among a number of black retirees who keep a close eye on the number of black recruits per semester at the fire academy. They called department staff for appointments, alleging that the department had put some blacks in prominent positions while keeping the number of rank-and-file black staffers low. They have also maintained that recruitment tends toward applicants from circles of political influence.
“Now we have a black fire commissioner. A lot of her support at the highest levels are black,” McCann said. “When people see that, they say ‘Man, the fire department is doing really well.'” But when you look at the entry level, our numbers have never been where we can say we are fair players in this game.”
The news was particularly disturbing for James Weinbush, a retired black fire captain and founding member of the African-American Association of Chicago Firefighters and Paramedics, who has been an outspoken voice for increased hiring since 1967.” When I got the job in October 1967, there was Only 225 blacks and five Hispanics are “in the department,” he said. He blamed the mayor’s office and other black elected officials for not supporting the fight to get more black firefighters into the department.
“If your highest-ranking elected official, who is also African-American, is not going to defend you… and they withdrew your protection from the federal government – what can we do when you give up on us?” asked Winbush.
McCann and Winbush complained that the numbers of black recruits in each fire academy class generally lag behind white and Hispanic candidates. In the past, the Fire Department has acknowledged problems with recruiting black candidates and has cited public pressures for young candidates.
While the department is more diverse than ever, black firefighters have complained that their numbers lag behind the department’s most common rank and that new hires can’t keep up with the retirement number of higher-ranking black employees.
Minority representation in the rank of battalion chief rose from 2% in 1980 to nearly 26% by 2020, according to figures cited by prosecutors from the Justice Department’s Employment Claims Division. Similarly, captains grew from 5% to about 28%, lieutenants from approximately 6% to 26% and engineers from 8.5% to 29%.
The government’s proposal used what appeared to be personal, dated material in evaluating the effectiveness of the city’s diversity boost.
For example, the memo cites 30 black battalion commanders in the department in 2020. But as of February 28, 2022, there were only 14, according to figures provided to Tribune through the Open Records Order. In another instance, the memo cited 2017 figures that listed 42 black fire captains, but the February total was 12-10 captain EMTs and two captain medics.
The decree was the result of a lawsuit brought by the federal government in 1980, challenging CFD promotional practices. On March 31, 1980, Federal Judge Frank McGarr decreed that the city should seek “the promotion of Blacks and Hispanics in sufficient numbers in order to substantially increase minority composition in each of the promotional ranks” and to make each rank more representative.
In 1973, the federal government found that the Fire Department under former Commissioner Robert Quinn had engaged in illegal hiring and promotion practices against African Americans and Hispanics, keeping their combined numbers below 5%.
Weinbusch, a third-generation firefighter, said the fight was still going on although the direction was unknown. He could easily remember the old days, when he had racial insults written on his locker. But he said he and others would continue to push for the residents of the black neighborhood to join the department.
In addition to the inherent prestige that comes with being a firefighter, it is also one of the most paying city service jobs.
“A job is a permanent job. You have to kick yourself out of the fire department,” said Weinbosch, who retired in 1998. Since the 1980 firefighter attack, the benefits have been incredible. Overtime benefits. hospitalization. pension. the retirement. Entire. It’s definitely the best job I’ve ever known or had. It’s the best kept secret in the world. Chicago Fire Department”.