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Inequality for Dummies

Critics say there are obvious steps Albany could take to ensure equality in the fire department, but the city has failed to take even basic steps—including swearing in a man who sued the city for a job with the department 11 years ago

By David King

 

Sebastian Banks doesn’t want to talk about it. The Albany firefighter would prefer not to draw attention to himself, risking the job that he had to sue the city of Albany in 1995 to get. He would like to be able to work until retirement and keep the pension he has been working toward. But in truth, there is not much Banks needs to say beyond his allegation that, after working as a member of the Albany Fire Department for more than a decade, he has yet to be sworn in alongside his coworkers. The allegation speaks for itself.

As troubling as Banks’ story is, perhaps even more disconcerting is that the department’s failure to swear him in after 11 years on the job is well-known to a number of local civil-rights activists, some of Banks’ coworkers, and even a number of local politicians.

Although Banks chooses to remain silent about what he perceives as discrimination by the city, in the court records, the details of his case remain open for everyone to see.

On June 5, 1993, Banks took a civil-service test to become an Albany firefighter. Banks scored an 85 and met other criteria for the position. According to court documents, “154 candidates passed the June 5, 1993 examination, including the plaintiff. No candidate scored above a 95.”

From those who passed the June ’93 exam, the Albany Municipal Civil Service Commission established a list of 154 eligible candidates, with their names and scores. Sixty-seven of those candidates were certified as “eligible for the position as of May 20, 1994.”

On May 24, then-Chief James Larson approved nine candidates to be firefighters. Seven of those candidates had scored 90 on the test and two had scored 85. All of the chosen firefighters were white men. At the time, in a fire department of 261 members, only eight of them were minorities. On June 7, 1995—almost a year later—Banks filed a civil action against the city of Albany and the fire department. Larson testified that he chose Justin Rhatigan over Banks because he “knew his family.”

Not only did the court award Banks $150,000 in back pay, cover his legal costs, and give him a place on the AFD, but as part of the consent decree, Judge Thomas McAvoy ruled that the city needed to change its hiring practices to ensure equality in the fire department.

The decree called for the AFD to work towards having their ranks more equally reflect the actual percentage of minorities living in Albany. At the time of the lawsuit, minorities were said by the court to be 21.5 percent of the population. Yet minorities represented only 3.1 percent of the fire department. The lawsuit demanded that the city create written, objective hiring practices.

The consent decree further mandated that a committee—made up of the city’s personnel director, corporation counsel and director of Equal Employment Opportunity, as well as the chief executive officer of the Urban League of Northeastern New York—be set up to determine “the best qualified candidates for appointment.” If the chief failed to accept the recommendations of the committee, he would then have to write to the mayor and the committee to explain why he rejected the proposed candidate.

And yet a number of concerned citizens, members of the AFD and city lawmakers say the city has done very little, if anything, to ensure equality.

The Minority Recruitment Com mittee was established to help Albany reach hiring goals and to figure out how to reach out to the minority community. A report issued by the committee in 1994 contained a section called “History of Minority/Women Hiring in the Albany Fire Department.”

“In summary, the department has hired 153 firefighters since 1986,” the report reads. “Of these, 136 have been white males, while 17 or 12.5% have been women or minorities. White males comprise only 35% of the population of Albany, yet they accounted for 87.5% of these hires, and currently comprise 94% of the department.”

The report goes on to suggest reaching out into minority communities to let them know that positions are available in the department and when tests are being administered, to establish recruitment and education programs in schools, to lower the age of eligibility and other changes they felt would help recruit minorities. But according to Elston Mackey, a firefighter who served on the committee and who has been a firefighter for 22 years, not much has changed since the committee made its recommendations 14 years ago.

Mackey says the city has not gone to proper lengths to recruit minorities, and most minorities do not have friends and relatives in positions to secure them jobs and push them to the tops of lists. And he insists that friend and family connections have ensured many jobs for white men in the department.

“I am quite sure there is no black on the job that would have a problem with that if we also were in a position to get friends on jobs,” says Mackey. “But we have no one to make sure our sons, our daughters get the job. There is nobody in the position to be helpful to us in that matter—no one in the department and no one in City Hall.”

Fire Chief Robert Forezzi declined to comment on the Banks case or the consent decree, but made it clear he was not the chief during the time of Banks’ lawsuit.

Mackey recently raised the ire of city officials by placing a phone call to Mayor Jerry Jennings’ radio show and asking when the mayor was going to hire more minorities. The mayor insisted the city is in no position financially to hire any more firefighters. But as Mackey points out, Albany has had years to rectify the situation. Despite whatever hiring freeze may or may not be in place, on June 14 of this year, the city gave another civil-service test for firefighters.

Chief Forezzi’s effort to recruit minorities for the test included booths at grocery stores and public events, firemen stationed across the city with sign-up sheets, and billboards at the Armory Garage and at the Palace Theatre.

“We had test packets at all Albany Housing Authority locations, a flyer up at the Department of Motor Vehicles,” says Forezzi. “We had flyers and applications at the fire departments. We visited YMCAs. We went to all the neighborhood association meetings. One thing we did this year is we hit all the African-American barber shops and left flyers and recruitment packages. This administration is enthusiastic and deliberate with our strategy.”

Forezzi also says the city has a summer program for teens interested in becoming firefighters, and there are plans to institute an EMT training course at Albany High to prepare students for the firefighter exam.

Despite his efforts to recruit minorities during Forezzi’s two years as chief, the department’s current makeup includes only 6.6 percent minorities, of which only 3 percent are African-American. Currently there are eight African Americans, six women and two Latinos in the department, whose ranks when full include 260 members. And there are 19 current vacancies.

But Forezzi says that the low percentages are attributable at least partly to a relatively new challenge. “A lot of people don’t know this,” he says, “but post-9/11, the populace witnessed on national TV what a firefighter does. They saw firefighters go in to a high-rise on fire and saw it collapse on them. Since then all fire departments have seen a decline in ethnic recruitment. What they say to themselves is, ‘Firefighting is a good job, but it also has a risk involved.’”

Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) takes issue with Forezzi’s assertion. “What happened before 9/11? Did they increase the number of minorities on the department before 9/11? No! I want to know how many minorities he’s interviewed since 9/11 that told him they didn’t want to take the exam because of 9/11.” Ellis further says that such broad statements made about minorities make him question the chief’s understanding of the issue at hand.

“I want to see facts on that statement,” says Ellis, “and if he does not present them, I am calling the chief’s ability to see the real issue into question.”

Mackey says he once was involved in the chief’s recruiting efforts and was part of a committee that was tasked with creating a cadet program. But, he says, he and other minority firefighters were quickly and unexpectedly removed from the process by Forezzi.

“The chief does whatever the mayor wants,” says Mackey. “He works for the mayor. If the mayor doesn’t want a program implemented, he doesn’t make the chief act upon it. If the chief is acting upon it but doing it without minorities on the job, how is he doing something that could possibly be successful without input from that community? How can you shut out those it would be helpful for? You can’t do that. You can’t ask me to set up an Italian-American situation when I’m not Italian-American. That is just ludicrous!”

Forezzi insists that he simply brought all recruiting efforts “in house.”

“We are building a foundation here,” said Forezzi. “In the time to come you will see more city kids being aware of the opportunity to be a firefighter. We are making them aware of the opportunity; that the door is wide open. Maybe we lack not [sic] making them aware, but that’s what we are trying to do here.”

Ellis, who is serving his first term as councilman, says that when Mackey approached him with concerns about equality in the fire department and the consent decree from Banks’ case, he had only one question: “Why didn’t you tell other local politicians about this?” Mackey responded that he had and nothing had been done.

“Banks sued and won, but there is still the same number of minorities in the department,” says Ellis. “The city cannot tell me they are actively doing everything possible.” Ellis insists that the council has allowed the mayor to run the department as he wishes without paying attention to the results. “It stuns me that this consent decree was out there, and I heard about it last year. I couldn’t believe the minorities who were previously on the [city] council didn’t say a thing about it! How come the council did not know there was a court decree?”

“The council should know how the process works,” says Ellis, exasperated. “I asked the chief to tell me how many minorities have sat in the chair for an interview after you canvassed, and he couldn’t tell me that number. And that’s a problem. I asked him to tell me the number of minorities that, after the initial interview, went to the agility test and failed, and he couldn’t tell me that either. If they are really trying to increase the number of minorities, he should keep a record of how many came through, how many went through the agility test. What was the flaw or failure of minorities? And without that understanding, are you really trying to have minorities in the fire department?”

McKinley Jones, vice president of the Albany Chapter of the NAACP, says he has watched in horror since 1998 as the city failed to move on the consent decree that would have held the Albany Fire Department to basic equality standards. “I’ve always known the fire department is one of the few remaining departments refusing to recognize the new age of affirmative action,” he says. “The lack of minorities in city government in Albany is no different. I just deplore that this consent decree was ignored by the city for years. We were let down by the mayor, let down by the Urban League, and let down at the city council because those three were supposed to implement the decree, and the fact that they didn’t do that continues to put us behind schedule for equality.”

Jones says that until the city implements all the court’s recommendations from the Banks case, “Anything they do in terms of equality is suspect.”

Councilman Ellis adds that the failure to implement the Banks case decree has a further consequence: Minorities in Albany have no reason to believe they will be given a job on the department, especially after the treatment Banks has received and what Ellis perceives as the city’s token gestures towards achieving equality in the department. The refusal to swear Banks in, Ellis believes, “says the city is not as progressive as they call themselves on hiring minority firefighters. They won’t have him sign the book! It sends the message to minority firefighters, ‘If they haven’t even sworn him in, do they really want him in the department?’ ”

Although the chief has told Ellis that he is working on starting a cadet program in Albany High that would reach out to students in the 12th grade, Ellis says that minorities need a chance to become interested in the job much earlier during their education and be given sufficient time to prepare for the career.

Ellis has proposed instituting a cadet program similar to the one used in Rochester, where students are recruited early in their educational career and held to a set of standards higher than the general population. Ellis says that instituting a program of such magnitude in Albany would be a sign that the city is committed to recruiting minorities.

Mackey says the city has an opportunity to right a large wrong by implementing a cadet program. “In 1994, we went to Rochester to speak to people on their recruitment committee, and we were given all the information to implement the program. The city [of Albany] said they would act on it. And they didn’t.”

“I used to work with the chief in terms of going out and doing recruitment,” Mackey adds. “We used to work with the chief going to job fairs every year, but he cut that out in terms of me even being a participant last year. He’s mad at me for speaking out, but I’m not mad at him. His hands are tied to do whatever the mayor wants to.”

Forezzi counters that the Rochester program is not the be-all end-all, and that cities all over the country are experimenting with effective recruiting programs.

According to Mackey, he presented the city with two programs this year that would increase minorities in the department, but he says his ideas were dismissed. “They can say one thing to the media, but ’til they act on it, it is just a smokescreen and lip service, and we don’t want lip service.”

On a positive note, Mackey says that day-to-day, working as a firefighter, he faces no stigma from his coworkers because he is a minority.

“I’m gonna speak for the majority of minorities on the job and say they don’t have problems with discrimination from their coworkers,” says Mackey. “I’m not a racist, and I treat everyone like they treat me. I used to be well-admired on the job. I don’t know how all guys might feel now since I’ve raised a fuss, but all the guys know I’m not a racist. I’m not prejudiced. My grandfather was a white Irishman.”

Banks, however, might disagree that there is no discrimination among the rank and file. He went through an ordeal after the events of Sept. 11, because of his status as a Muslim. People familiar with the events say that Banks took issue with posters and flags hung in his firehouse in the wake of the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. Banks allegedly took it upon himself to take a flag and poster down, and faced disciplinary charges from the fire department. Around the same time, Banks allegedly was seen by a police officer putting a shotgun and an assault rifle into his car. He was brought up on charges in court and suspended by the commissioner of public safety.

A judge dismissed the court charges against Banks, but Banks was brought up on departmental disciplinary charges as well.

People familiar with Banks’ case allege that the department tried to charge him with violating his firefighter’s oath—the very oath Banks insists he never took. Lawyers for the department allegedly advised the department it could not charge Banks for violating his oath if he had never taken it. Sam Fresina, president of the Albany Firefighters Union, was quoted in the Times Union as saying of Banks, “We want to make sure that his allegiance is to this fire department and this country. There are allegations that he has denounced America and Americans and said that he is not an American. We are helping in an investigation, and we will be listening to both sides.”

Banks claimed at the time he was removing a poster of an American flag with something offensive written on it.

Mackey says that the city has developed a habit of dealing with grumbling about inequality in the fire department by announcing new initiatives that never come to pass or by feigning concern without being prepared to act.

“There was a Times Union comment about the fire department, and they were talking explicitly about setting up a cadet program in the Albany School District,” says Mackey. “Well, September is three months away and it has yet to be instituted. A cadet program is the best working venue out there to get minorities in jobs, and we have had no progress on it. So there again they are talking, sending up smokescreens again. They talk a good game, but they don’t act upon what they preach.”

In the end, no matter what excuse the city comes up with for not adhering to the court’s consent decree or for not implementing more intense minority-recruiting programs, the truth is plain to see, says Mackey.

“They just don’t want to do it,” he says. “It’s a successful program throughout major cities in this country. If you don’t want to have success you don’t institute the program. It is that simple.”

Ellis agrees. To get minorities who live in the city into the department the city needs to implement an in-school program that starts before high school, offer an EMT class in Albany High, and allow firefighter applicants who are minorities a grace period after they join the department to take the EMT course. Ellis says this is important because most people who have previous EMT training are white men from outside the city limits who serve in rural or suburban volunteer fire departments. “If we want to employ minorities and people who live in our city, this is what we have to do. It is that simple.”

Ellis insists that those who do not understand the connection between Banks’ story and trying to recruit minority Albany firefighters today are simply deluding themselves.

The Banks case “has everything to do with recruitment,” says Ellis. “It shows that if the department has not sworn in a minority firefighter who had to sue to get a place on the department, how can I as a regular citizen think that they are actively doing everything necessary to make minorities feel comfortable in the department and to make sure they are in the department? I cannot take your gestures seriously. And how can we be expected to take it seriously as a community when they did not follow a court decree? The City of Albany did not follow a court decree! Then how can we expect them to actively recruit minorities now?”

Forezzi says that he is focused on getting an EMT class into Albany High, and more than understands its importance. “An EMT class will allow us to capture them in high school. It will not only get them interested in a career as a firefighter, but also allows them an opportunity get a job on the ambulance or in the ER or a doctor’s office. There is lots of opportunity here, and we are working hard with the school administration to get this program in the high school. I am telling you this will put us in a vanguard with other cities. They will blueprint us when it happens. As you can see, we have not been lying around here. We’ve been hitting it hard here. We are dedicated and sincerely motivated.”


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