More than a third of the 67 captains in the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services department filed racial-discrimination complaints in the past week, saying the department gives preferential consideration to less-qualified minorities in its promotions process.
Twenty-four captains, all of whom are white, filed the complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Thursday, saying they were discriminated against during a process by which four new battalion chiefs were named in August.
At the time the promotions were decided, the department had 23 battalion fire chiefs, seven of whom were black. Two of the promotions went to captains who were black; the other two captains rewarded were white.
But those who filed the complaints say that the August promotions which were approved by acting Chief Adrian Thompson were made disproportionately because 54 eligible captains were white, while six were black.
According to a lawyer hired by the complaining captains, during initial interviews for the four vacancies in December 2001 under Chief Ronnie Few, only 12 captains were invited to participate. Seven of them were white, and five were black.
When many captains who had been looked over complained to fire department and city government officials, the remaining eligible captains were interviewed. Still, all the promotions came from the list of the 12 captains initially interviewed.
The second round of interviews was conducted in January last year by Chief Thompson and Assistant Chief Gary Garland, a Few appointee.
Complaints of cronyism and racial discrimination have cropped up in Mr. Few’s career as a fire department administrator.
In July, an Augusta, Ga., special grand jury accused him of discrimination during his tenure as chief of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department.
The grand jury report said Chief Few took advantage of the promotions process by adding an interview component to the written exam, and then disproportionately weighted his selections based on the interviews, though no notes or lists could be produced to justify his choices.
But unlike promotions at lesser ranks, the promotion from captain to battalion chief in the District does not mandate a written examination. Under the administration of Chief Thomas Tippett, a formula was devised that placed the majority weight on a candidate’s seniority.
A candidate for battalion chief is required to have served at least one year as a captain. The captains who received the promotions in August were numbers 34, 36, 40 and 55 in rank order of seniority.
Capt. Kevin Byrne, among those who lodged complaints, said that despite submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for a rank-order list of the candidates based on their interviews, the captains have been unable to obtain the records or determine which criteria were used in deciding the promotions.
“It’s clear they just created [the second round of interviews] to pretend they were considering all the other captains when they weren’t,” said James Maloney, the attorney representing the captains.
Capt. Byrne said the interviews were “exceedingly brief, 15-minute sessions” in which officials asked questions “irrelevant to an applicant’s qualifications” and hardly appeared to be listening or taking notes.
“I believe that my rights under the Constitution and the laws of the United States were violated by a sham process in which the officials who interviewed me appeared to be merely ‘going through the motions’ to disguise the department’s discriminatory intent to appoint battalion chiefs on the basis of race rather than merit,” Capt. Byrne said in his complaint.
“It is the fire chief’s prerogative to promote individuals of his management team as he sees fit,” said Alan Etter, a department spokesman. “Our position is that these promotions were done fairly and legally.”
Mr. Maloney said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has 180 days to review the case, at which time a lawsuit is likely to be filed.