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