MORE

Denver Fire Department: Does it have a diversity problem?

Out of 32 assistant chiefs currently working in the Denver Fire Department, one is black, four are Hispanic and there are no females. Of 62 captains below them, six are black, and three of those are eligible to retire in coming years. The consequence of these numbers according to some members? As individuals move up in the ranks, the department is on track to have a striking lack of diversity in its top leadership.

One white official has labeled this problem "institutional racism" in an internal letter -- though the chief of the department maintains that he and the city are committed to diversity in recruitment and promotions.

The Colorado Black Professional Firefighters, a chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, based in Denver, met last Thursday with the Denver Fire Department's official recruiter and other employee organizations to discuss ways that the recruitment process can "bolster inclusivity." The meeting, mentioned to us by Tony Martin, president of the Colorado Black Professional Firefighters, comes on the heels of growing concerns that the department has set itself up for a period lacking in diversity when it comes supervisory slots.

He and others believe that given the current demographics of captains and assistant chiefs, the top positions will be filled primarily by white males for many years to come -- a problem that to some seems unavoidable at present.

"You look at those numbers and you can just see the writing on the walls," says Martin, a 56-year-old captain in the department. "If something doesn't happen...[this becomes] a self-fulfilled prophecy that there won't be any diversity."

Out of roughly 900 members in the department, 52 are black, according to a DFD spokesman, who confirms the accuracy of more specific breakdowns provided to us by Martin. Below Eric Tade, the chief of the department, who is white, there are six division chiefs -- two who are Hispanic males, one female and three white males. Below that group are the 32 all-male assistant chiefs, with four Hispanics and one African American. And below that are the 62 captains, of which only six are black.

From 2002 to 2006, only 1 percent of candidates hired by the department were African American and 13.7 percent were Hispanic, according to the DFD. From 2007 to 2012, 10.9 percent hired were African American and 21.2 percent Hispanic. The improvements in recent years, department officials say, come from 2006 recommendations from a diversity task force. Hiring is officially conducted by the city's Civil Service Commission.

Still, given that those promoted to top fire department spots come from the lower ranks, some observers feel the department will have a diversity problem in its leadership for a long time. Of the three black captains, one is scheduled to retire in March of 2014, another in August of 2017 and a third in September of 2017.

This issue was first brought to our attention by a letter from Rex King, a white assistant chief within the department, who wrote about his concerns with the growing problem of "institutional racism." Through an Open Records request, the city recently sent us the 2009 letter from King to the chief and deputy chief of the department at the time. The complete letter is on view below, but here's an excerpt:

The Department is the midst of crisis which will require immediate attention by the current administration. As you are very aware, nine and perhaps more Assistant Chiefs will be retiring in the next eighteen months. Included in this demographic group are: seventy-five percent of the African American chiefs on the job and twenty percent of the Hispanic chiefs. These chiefs will be replaced by one hundred percent Caucasians; chiefs who will be in place for the next two decades. The Assistant Chiefs being replaced make up thirty percent of Assistant Chief's rank.

Denver's Civil Service Commission and Fire Department are not engaging in unfair practices. However, the unattended consequence of the current situation is institutional racism. In the last Department-wide management training, command officers were instructed: "if it is predictable it is preventable." As a Department and City, we don't even have to predict the results of inaction; we already know the outcome. Interestingly enough, the mission statements of both agencies mention the advancement of diversity.

We've left a message for King and will update when and if we hear back.

In June, Martin sent an open letter to city officials expressing his concerns with ongoing struggles to make the department more diverse; the document is also on view below. He wrote in part:

Not only has it been difficult for African Americans and minorities in general to be hired by the DFD, it has been equally difficult for those who have been hired to promote to higher level positions. In the last several years the number of African American Chiefs working for the DFD has been reduced from a high of 5 to just 1, and that remaining Chief is slated to retire soon. The situation is the same for our African American Captains and Lieutenants.

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to the Denver Fire Department. Something has gone terribly wrong in the hiring and promotional practices for many fire departments across this great nation of ours. You don't have to look very hard (or far) to see just how true that statement is.

Martin argues that the recruitment process and associated exams are in need of serious reform and have contributed to the lack of diversity in the department.

"We need to start looking at a whole candidate and not just...an arbitrary score," Martin tells us. "It's having an adverse impact and it's discriminatory."

He argues that the exams and process of recruiting in general have favored non-minority hirings and promotions.

Continue for response from the fire department and the full letters from Martin and King.

 

The fire department disputes allegations that recruitment has been discriminatory. In an e-mail to us, Chief Tade writes:

The exam process is conducted by the Civil Service Commission who ensures the exam process has no adverse impact. The current hiring test not only tests for educational abilities, but also emotional outlook and interpersonal skills. The exam process is always being evaluated and modified when improvement areas are identified. We have spent the last year meeting with employee groups, Civil Service, the Manager of Safety, and recruiters to enhance the recruitment process and limit barriers to entry onto the Department with an overall goal of increasing minority representation within the Department.

Martin says that his meeting last week with the department focused on supporting a "culture of inclusion" in the recruitment process. While it was a positive development to discuss the problem of diversity, he says he'd like to see a more in-depth look at how the department can reform its process of judging candidates and promoting members.

"I hope this is not the end of how we discuss viewing candidates," he says.

"We all agree that inclusiveness and diversity is something that is important to the fire department even in our promoted ranks," he goes on. But given current demographics, he adds, "it's getting worse and worse."

Asked what the department is doing to promote diversity, Chief Tade writes:

It is impossible to predict the outcomes of any of the promotional exams; factors are not based exclusively on performance, but also participation. We have experienced fairly equal performance based on race in the promotional process with 34% of African Americans being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant or above, 28% of Hispanics, and 27% of Caucasians. Diversity is of great importance to the Department and we recognize a Department reflective of the community it serves is able to serve that community at the highest levels. The Department currently engages in full time targeted recruiting and has recently engaged the Manger of Safety's Office and Civil Service Commission to enhance the hiring process to limit barriers to entry onto the Department. Our recent class hired in July of 2012 was comprised of 25% African Americans, 45% Hispanics.

Martin says diversity in the department is important for a number of reasons. For instance, he feels law enforcement in general is more successful when the makeup of the staff reflects the communities that it serves.

"It definitely has an effect," he says. "When you start hiring kids of color, what are their supervisors gonna look like? They're not gonna have supervisors that look like them.... I have no mentor to go to...because nobody looks like me."

He adds, "It takes a group effort.... I've always felt like I have an obligation.... I want to make sure these kids have the same opportunity that I have."

While he concedes that this is a very complicated challenge, he feels the time has come to take some first serious steps at reforming recruitment.

"We have to have something that's fair and equitable," he says. "It's never too late to make a commitment to change."

Continue for the full letters from King and Martin and the full response from Chief Tade.

 

The 2009 letter from Rex King, an assistant chief, titled "Institutional Racism" Institutional Racism Letter

Tony Martin's June, 2012 letter on behalf of the Colorado Black Professional Firefighters Tony Martin Letter

And here's Chief Tade's response to our e-mailed questions, in bold.

From what I understand, and please correct me if any of this is wrong, out of six division chiefs, there are two Hispanic males, one female and three white males. Of 32 assistant chiefs, only one is African American and one is Hispanic and there are no females. And then of 62 captains, six are black and three of those are eligible to retire. I understand that out of more than 900 members, there are 50 black firefighters.

Currently -- there are 4 Hispanic assistant chiefs. The first African American captain is scheduled to retire in March of 2014, the next is August of 2017, and the third September of 2017. There are currently 52 Black firefighters.

Some are concerned that this will lead to many years of only white leadership in the dept as folks move up in the ranks. Any response to these concerns? What is the department doing to promote diversity? Are these breakdowns a concern to the fire department?

It is impossible to predict the outcomes of any of the promotional exams; factors are not based exclusively on performance, but also participation. We have experienced fairly equal performance based on race in the promotional process with 34% of African Americans being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant or above, 28% of Hispanics, and 27% of Caucasians. Diversity is of great importance to the Department and we recognize a Department reflective of the community it serves is able to serve that community at the highest levels. The Department currently engages in full time targeted recruiting and has recently engaged the Manger of Safety's Office and Civil Service Commission to enhance the hiring process to limit barriers to entry onto the Department. Our recent class hired in July of 2012 was comprised of 25% African Americans, 45% Hispanics.

I also understand that over seven years and more than a dozen fire academy classes for new recruits, there were no black firefighters hired. Is that true? Why is this the case?

In reference to hiring statistics, here is the following information; 2002-2006 only one percent of candidates hired were African American; from 2007-2012, 10.9% were African American. In 2006 recommendations from the diversity task force were received and implemented reflecting the improvements 2007-2012. Similar improvements were also realized in the hiring of Hispanics 2002-2006 13.7% of hiring; 2007-2012, 21.2% of hiring. All hiring is conducted by the Civil Service Commission which is entrusted to provide to the Manager of Safety a diverse pool of qualified applicants for appointment to each academy class.

Finally, CBPF is concerned about the exam process, saying that these exams end up being discriminatory and screening out more minorities. They say they'd like to see more comprehensive screening that looks at the whole candidate. Any response to these concerns? Are there efforts to reform the exam / recruitment process? I hear the group is meeting today with a recruiter to discuss this. Any comment on that meeting?

The exam process is conducted by the Civil Service Commission who ensures the exam process has no adverse impact. The current hiring test not only tests for educational abilities, but also emotional outlook and interpersonal skills. The exam process is always being evaluated and modified when improvement areas are identified. We have spent the last year meeting with employee groups, Civil Service, the Manager of Safety, and recruiters to enhance the recruitment process and limit barriers to entry onto the Department with an overall goal of increasing minority representation within the Department. In regards to the specific meeting referenced, this meeting was conducted by the Department recruiter to share with employee groups new tools and opportunities for employee groups to assist in the recruitment of candidates to bolster inclusivity. As Chief of the Denver fire Department I am committed to making sure the Department is inclusive and serves the citizens of Denver at the very highest level possible.

More from our Politics archive: "Marijuana: Michael Hancock rips Amendment 64, says MMJ has hurt Denver"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >