Critics Frustrated at Slow Progress in Effort to Address Discrimination in Kansas City (MO) Fire Department

Old fire truck

Mike Hendricks, Allison Kite, and Glenn E. Rice

The Kansas City Star

(MCT)

Mar. 28—Frustration is growing over city hall’s delay in hiring a consultant to investigate discrimination within the Kansas City Fire Department.

More than two months after the city council ordered the legal department to prepare a request for proposals from outside consultants, that RFP is still in the drafting stage.

That means the investigation won’t likely begin until May at the earliest, some six months after The Star published a three-part series revealing decades of harassment and discrimination within the KCFD targeting women and minorities and which prompted calls for the outside probe.

“There isn’t any excuse as to why that hasn’t been done,” said Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, whose idea it was to have an investigation conducted by an outside firm.

“That should have been out,” she said of the RFP

Gwendolyn Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, also finds the delay frustrating and said she and other community leaders plan to meet Monday with City Manager Brian Platt to discuss that and other issues related to the fire department.

“We are very concerned that we have yet to see any measurable, impactful movement to eradicate racism in the KCFD,” Grant said. “Advancing the thorough external investigation into the policies, practices and procedures of the KCFD is a critical first step in transforming this racist institution. Hopefully, we will get answers soon.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas, however, is confident that city staff will come through for a council that is committed to seeing change come to a department where Black firefighters have long complained of racism and lack of opportunities for advancement.

“I think that you are seeing a conversation that may not seem that transformative,” Lucas said, “but getting the fire union and our city manager and our fire department to change things that have been certain ways for generations is something that I think the people of Kansas City can take as a sign that we care about the issues that we heard.”

City Manager Brian Platt told The Star in a recent interview that the city is committed to addressing the problems and will soon finish the proposal seeking outside counsel.

In the meantime, Fire Chief Donna Lake said she is taking steps to make good on the promises she made in December to change the department’s culture by, among other things, conducting diversity training and asking community leaders to help guide changes in policy and operations.

The Star’s report found that for years Black firefighters in Kansas City have been shut out of promotions and desirable stations. They’ve endured racial slurs and, at times, life-threatening harassment on the job.

In a city where nearly 30% of residents are Black, only 14% of firefighters are. Four of nine busy inner-city stations analyzed by The Star hadn’t had a single Black captain in 10 years — as far back as city data goes — as of last fall.

At the time the series published, the city had paid out $2.5 million in judgments, settlements, attorneys fees and other litigation expenses for discrimination lawsuits since the early 2000s. Since then, it reached a $250,000 settlement with another Black firefighter who was passed over for promotions.

Platt, who had just begun his tenure when the articles were published, promised to take “aggressive and swift steps” to prevent further discrimination. But many of those moves, like taking that first step toward hiring an outside firm to investigate discrimination within the department, have yet to come to fruition.

“If the city was serious about fighting and eradicating systemic racism, they surely would have to work a lot harder at it,” said Talib Ntwadumela Muwwakki, Kansas City chapter chairman of the National Black United Front, one of the groups that Lake has been working with.

Platt urged patience.

“Our law department is currently in the process of putting together an RFP for legal services that will not only cover the investigations of those incidents reported and documented in the KC Star reports, but also additional incidents that may come up over time,” Platt said. “One of the other requests that we received was to provide an outside counsel and third party investigator moving forward in the future. And we wanted to do both of those things at the same time, and have that available immediately.”

The city is also in negotiations with the International Association of Firefighters Local 42, which represents the city’s firefighters, drivers and captains, over its union contract. Among the topics being discussed is a strengthened zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, a process that’s taking longer than Platt anticipated.

“We want to make sure that we’re not just rushing through this just to check the box,” he said. “We’re driving for systemic positive change in the culture of our entire organization, and that’s not something we can force overnight.”

At the same time, Robinson noted that City Hall has moved swiftly to add investigators to its Human Resources department, which has, at times, taken months to investigate claims of discrimination.

“These are individuals who live with the people…that they’re actually making complaints about in many cases,” she said of the firefighters. “And so given that dynamic, there should be an expedited investigation process.”

A 2017 audit of the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Office found investigations were slow — or even misplaced. The audit team initially set out to evaluate how long investigations were taking, but the department’s data wasn’t even good enough to determine that.

Platt said the HR department would expand its recruitment efforts in the coming weeks, partnering with community organizations to recruit more firefighters of color.

Some reforms, though, have to be negotiated with Local 42. The union contract allows for station trades, a tool white firefighters have used to get advantageous assignments over their Black peers. That has resulted in some inner-city stations, which are the most coveted, with few Black firefighters.

The city will also look at hiring a new firm to administer its promotional exams after using the same one for nearly 20 years. In 2017, the city paid more than $1 million in judgments and attorney fees to resolve a lawsuit from a Black firefighter repeatedly passed over for promotions.

Local 42 president Tim Dupin did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview, Lake said the department recently asked for bids from consultants to conduct testing for new hires and promotions.

She also has been meeting with leaders of groups like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who have raised concerns about racism, and formed an advisory committee to discuss issues such as minority recruitment and promotion. Lake thinks those conversations and the internal dialog she initiated within the department will lead to a more inclusive department.

“It’s recruitment, it’s mentorship and, you know, the onboarding process. It’s a promotional process, it’s our internal culture, and systems and policy review. It’s leadership, and then you know, the accountability piece, obviously,” she said.

“We want to hold ourselves accountable, and of course council and the public and everybody else wants to know that we’re being accountable to make change.”

Every member of the department will undergo diversity training between now and July from a free program developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, she said. Lake is also taking steps to connect with the minority community by having firefighters who are on light duty due to an injury or some other reason assist at vaccine clinics.

Members of the department’s diversity committees have been distributing food to the needy.

“I think people are getting the message and kind of getting reignited, and engaged in, you know, we’re here for public service. And we’re here for the community that we serve,” Lake said.

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