'Racial overtones' in white FFs' lawsuit, leader of minority FFs group says

The lawsuit by white Cleveland fire lieutenants claims black candidates were unfairly favored over white candidates for promotions


Eric Heisig
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

CLEVELAND — The leaders of an organization representing minority members of Cleveland’s fire department said a lawsuit filed over recent promotions by white lieutenants comes off as an insult to everything the organization has fought for over the past few decades.

Tyree Thompson, the president of the Vanguards of Cleveland, said in an interview that the lawsuit filed in December and now in federal court was just another in a long line of instances involving the city and the lack of diversity among the more than 700 firefighters.

The president of the Vanguards of Cleveland, a group representing black, Hispanic and female Cleveland firefighters, said a discrimination lawsuit by white city firefighters has
The president of the Vanguards of Cleveland, a group representing black, Hispanic and female Cleveland firefighters, said a discrimination lawsuit by white city firefighters has "racial overtones." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission previously found that the city discriminated against minority and female fire department candidates. (Photo/Cleveland Fire Facebook)

“Acting like this doesn’t have racial overtones is disingenuous for me,” Thompson said of the lawsuit.

It’s also the latest in a decades-long spate of lawsuits from white and minority firefighters over the makeup of the department and which firefighters gets promoted. The lawsuits provided documentation of longstanding racial tension in the majority-white department.

The Vanguards represents black, Hispanic and female members of the department. The department’s firefighters, which serve a majority-black city, are 76 percent white male, according to Vanguards Vice President Myran Jackson.

The organization filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that said city officials discriminated against black, Hispanic and female candidates up for employment, as well as firefighters up for promotions over several years.

The EEOC sent a letter to the city in November that said its investigators found the city had discriminated. The city denies the allegations.

The lieutenants’ lawsuit is the other side of the coin. It says officials discriminated against 24 white lieutenants because a smaller percentage of eligible white candidates were promoted to captains than their black counterparts.

Sixty-six lieutenants completed the exam. Of those, 14 were black and 49 were white, according to the lawsuit. The city in February 2018 established a ranked list of 52 people that passed exam and were eligible for promotion before the list expires on Feb. 2 of this year.

The city will have promoted 22 lieutenants to captain by the time the list expires, the lawsuit says. Of those, 13 were white, eight were black and one was an unknown race. That meant 57 percent of the black candidates who completed the exam were promoted, while 26 percent of the white candidates who completed the exam were promoted, the suit says. Because of those percentages, the lawsuit says the city violated the “four-fifths rule," which says that the selection rate for a certain group must be 80 percent or higher than the group with the highest selection rate.

Thompson and Jackson did not dispute those numbers. However, they said the lawsuit does not appear to take umbrage with a test given the same year for promotions to lieutenant, which they characterized as very similar to the one given for captain. Nor did white firefighters sue over the results over the previous two exams.

“There’s an issue now because there are black candidates scoring well,” Thompson said.

Stuart Torch, an attorney for the white lieutenants, wrote in an email that his clients want the same thing as the Vanguards: a fair and discrimination-free promotions process. Other tests the city gave have no bearing on whether the 2017 test discriminated against the white lieutenants, as each exam must be evaluated on its own, he said.

“No one in our group of plaintiffs is racist, or has any racist motivation in pursuing this lawsuit," Torch wrote. “We just want the opportunity to demonstrate that the City’s 2017 Fire Captain’s exam had a discriminatory impact against Caucasian candidates."

Jackson said the best way for the lieutenants to prove they want the same thing as the Vanguards is to support the EEOC case.

Indeed, issues surrounding discrimination in the fire department, for both white and minority candidates, have played out over multiple lawsuits for more than 40 years on issues such as hiring, promotions and discipline.

In 1973, minority residents in Cleveland sued the city for not being hired as firefighters and said officials discriminated during the hiring process. At the time, black residents accounted for 40 percent of the city’s population, though only 4 percent of Cleveland’s firefighters were black.

The city entered into a consent decree with the residents in 1977 to address the discrimination and hire more minority candidates.

In 2000, the group Cleveland Firefighters for Fair Hiring Practices sued to challenge the consent decree, though U.S. District Judge John Manos imposed new guidelines and said the city must hire one minority candidate for every two white candidates until the department’s makeup was one-third minority.

By 2013, after appeals and more litigation, another federal judge, Donald Nugent, ended the consent decree.

Battalion Chief Frank Szabo, a former president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 93 who was active with Cleveland Firefighters for Fair Hiring Practices, said that he found it “troubling and ... somewhat hypocritical that one group of plaintiffs should feel free to explore their federal civil rights and not another group." Szabo, who remains a union official, made clear he only spoke for himself.

But Thompson said such lawsuits filed by white firefighters tend to create problems with minority firefighters, including “anger and animosity.”

“It may not rear its head right away, but it will come out,” Thompson said.

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©2020 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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