Federal court dissolves Chicago FD's decades-old minority hiring decree

A judge found that minority representation increased, but some current and retired Black firefighters said their numbers continued to dwindle


William Lee
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A federal judge recently agreed to dissolve a 42-year-old court mandate on minority hiring within the Chicago Fire Department, finding that minority representation had increased substantially since its implementation in early 1980.

While federal officials looked at the increase in “minority” employees, some current and retired Black firefighters cried foul, saying their manpower numbers continued to dwindle due to slow hiring of Black recruits and high black retirement among its commanding officers.

A Chicago firefighter worked the scene of a fire on West Montrose Avenue at North Richmond Street in the Albany Park neighborhood on Feb. 21, 2022.
A Chicago firefighter worked the scene of a fire on West Montrose Avenue at North Richmond Street in the Albany Park neighborhood on Feb. 21, 2022. (Photo/Jose M. Osorio/Tribune News Service)

Last Thursday, Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois approved a joint request between federal prosecutors overseeing the long-running Albrecht decree and city attorneys ending the March 1980 decree named for former commissioner Richard Albrecht.

“This Court finds that minority representation in each promotional rank of the city of Chicago Fire Department has increased substantially since entry of the Albrecht Decree,” Pallmeyer wrote in a short ruling.

“The Court also finds that city of Chicago has made good-faith efforts to comply with the decree, and dissolution of the decree will not limit or hamper future challenges to alleged employment discrimination in the CFD.”

The ruling ends the decree that focused on minority hiring in ranking positions. Pallmeyer’s ruling came six days after prosecutors filed an 18-page motion seeking dissolution, pointing to increased minority representation and cooperation with the Fire Department. The city soon joined the motion. Authorities said they used an outside consultant “as needed” to provide expertise in helping them review technical materials provided by the city.

Federal authorities argued that the dissolution of Albrecht wouldn’t lessen the city’s obligations to provide equal employment opportunity under a congressional discrimination protection known as Title VII.

In a statement to the Tribune, the city’s Law Department lauded the end of the decree. “The dismissal of the decree will enable the city to efficiently retire current eligibility lists when appropriate and adopt new lists expeditiously. The city remains committed to ongoing progress.” The Chicago Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman with the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois referred comments to the Department of Justice’s D.C.-based Civil Rights Division, which handled the case, but a DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment.

The ruling came as bitter news to Black retirees who had long fought a system weighed against minority firefighters, particularly African-Americans, whose numbers have dropped in certain ranks.

In April, an analysis of Fire Department personnel records by the Tribune found that Black firefighters had slipped to third place with only 422 in the 4,800 unifordmed member department, or about 15%. This was a dip from the 16.5% in 2016. Firefighter-EMT is the department’s most common rank. Hispanic firefighters, who were 13.5% of firefighters in 2016 are now the second largest group at 18%.

“Oh my gosh,” said Ezra McCann, a retired Black fire captain, upon hearing Tuesday that the decree had been dissolved. McCann, who joined the department in 1977, discounted the government’s findings, saying they hadn’t interviewed or spoken with any Black members who have long championed the cause of increased Black hiring and promotions. “It’s a bad move.”

McCann is among a number of vocal Black retirees who keep close watch on the number of Black recruits in every fire academy class. They have called the department’s hiring moves window dressing, claiming the department has placed some Blacks in prominent positions while keeping the number of rank-and-file Black personnel down. They have also maintained the hiring is tilted toward applicants from politically influential wards.

“Right now we’ve got a Black female fire commissioner. A lot of her support in the top echelon are Blacks,” McCann said. “When people see that, they say ‘Oh man, the Fire Department’s doing well.’ But when you look at the entry level, our numbers have never been where we can say we’re fair players in this game.”

The news was particularly upsetting for James Winbush, a retired Black fire captain and a founding member of the African-American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago, who had been an outspoken voice for increased hiring since 1967. “When I got on the job in October 1967, there were only 225 Blacks and five Hispanics” on the department,” he said. He blamed the mayor’s office and other black elected officials for not backing the fight to get more Black firefighters in the department.

“If your highest elected official, who is also African-American, will not defend you ... and they take away your protection from the federal government — what can we do when leadership abandons us?” Winbush asked.

Both McCann and Winbush complained that the numbers of Black recruits in each fire academy class generally lags behind white and Hispanic candidates. In the past, the Fire Department has acknowledged troubles with recruiting Black candidates and have pointed to public pushes for young candidates.

While the department is far more diverse than any time in its past, Black firefighters complained that their numbers lagged at the department’s most common rank and that new hires couldn’t keep pace with the number of retirements of higher ranking Black personnel.

Minority representation among the battalion chief rank increased from 2% in 1980 to nearly 26% by 2020, according to numbers cited by prosecutors from the DOJ’s Employment Litigation Section. Similarly, captains grew from 5% to about 28%, lieutenants from nearly 6% to 26% and engineers from 8.5% to 29%.

The government motion used what appeared to be dated personnel material in evaluating the effectiveness of the city’s diversity push.

For example, the memo cites 30 Black battalion chiefs in the department in 2020. But as of Feb. 28, 2022, there were only 14, according to numbers given to the Tribune through an open records request. In another instance, the memo cited 2017 numbers that listed 42 Black fire captains, but the February total was 12 — 10 captain-EMTs and two captain-paramedics.

The decree was the result of a 1980 lawsuit filed by the federal government, challenging the CFD’s promotional practices. On March 31, 1980, federal Judge Frank McGarr entered the decree that mandated the city “shall seek to promote black and Hispanic persons in sufficient numbers so as to increase substantially the minority composition in each of the promotional ranks” and make each rank more representative.

In 1973, the federal government found that the Fire Department under former Commissioner Robert Quinn had engaged in unlawful hiring and promotion practices against African Americans and Hispanics, keeping both their combined numbers under 5%.

Winbush, a third-generation firefighter, said the fight lives on though the direction is unknown. He can easily recall the old days, when he had racial slurs written on his locker. But he said he and others would continue to push for Black neighborhood residents to join the department.

In addition to the inherent prestige that comes with being a firefighter, it is also one of the most lucrative of all city service jobs.

“The job’s a permanent job. You have to fire yourself from the Fire Department,” said Winbush, who retired in 1998. “Since the firefighter strike of 1980, the benefits have been unbelievable. The overtime benefits. The hospitalization. The pension. The retirement. All of it. It is absolutely the best job that I ever knew about or ever had. It is the best-kept secret in the world. The Chicago Fire Department.”

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