For years, Springfield politicians have talked the talk: We need more minorities in the police and fire departments.
The numbers are undeniably dismal. More than 96 percent of firefighters are white; fewer than 8 percent of police officers are racial minorities in a city where more than 20 percent of the population is a color other than white.
Walking the walk, well, that never seems to happen. Efforts to increase minority hiring have ranged from nonexistent to laughable.
A dozen years ago, then Mayor Karen Hasara announced a goal of hiring minorities until 15 percent of police and firefighters were people of color by 2005. The city didn’t come close. Former police chief Ralph Caldwell told the city council in 2007 that the way the city ranks job candidates based on test scores will never result in adequate minority representation on the police force, but the city still grades candidates the same way five years later.
Former mayor Tim Davlin, Caldwell’s boss, retained a consultant to recruit minority job candidates for the police and fire departments even though the hired gun lived in Milwaukee, nearly 300 miles from the capital city. Chris Miller, the minority recruiter hired by Davlin, achieved success by declaring it.
“The infrastructure that we have in place is great,” Miller told the State Journal-Register in 2009. “It’s hard to argue with the success of the efforts.”
Forgive us for quibbling.
Three years after Miller said it’s difficult to argue with success, the percentage of police officers who are African-American stands at 5 percent, less than a half-percent higher than in 2009. Less than 2 percent of the city’s firefighters are black. Despite the alleged success of Miller’s recruiting efforts, the city no longer employs a minority recruiter for the police and fire departments.
Mayor Mike Houston is the city’s latest-and-greatest talker. During his campaign, he visited east side churches and made a big deal about diversity. But he didn’t mention minorities during his April 18 “state of the city” address, when he took stock of his first year in office, talking about city finances and grocery stores and building-code enforcement and schemes to combine the city’s vehicle fleet into a single garage.
“It’s almost like it’s the rhetoric of a politician on the campaign trail – I’ll say what I need to get elected and after I get elected, the hell with you,” says Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson. “That’s harsh. But that’s how I feel.”
The mayor gives a testy response.
“You’re talking about someone who’s been on the city council for five years,” Houston says. “What concrete suggestions does she have to increase the minority numbers in the police and fire department? It is easy to criticize. The question is, what is the solution? I’m not hearing the solution.”
Good luck getting a solution, or even a proposal, from Houston.
“We certainly are trying,” Houston said. “One of the things I think we’ll have to do is change some civil-service rules.”
Just what rules would be changed and how, Houston can’t, or won’t, say, although he hints that he can do it on his own.
“I’m not sure this is something that would have to go to the city council,” the mayor says.
He won’t say what “this” is.
“We haven’t fleshed this out yet,” Houston says.
“There are a number of things that are important to me in the course of this term,” says Houston, who said during the campaign that he planned to be a one-term mayor. “They are not going to happen overnight.”
That’s for sure.
Talk, talk and more talk
Last August, without using the “q” word itself, Houston, who was mayor from 1979 to 1987 before winning a third term last year, called for quotas in announcing a round of hiring for the police department.
“My goal is to have both a police and fire department that is reflective of the community,” Houston told Illinois Times four months after the election. “In my mind, the way you’re going to make that happen is 25 percent of our hires should be minorities until we have a representation that reflects the community.”
Four months later, the city hired 21 firefighters. Nineteen were white, one was black and a Hispanic who was hired along with the others has already left the department.
The city hires largely on the basis of how job candidates perform in written and oral examinations. Applicants are grouped together based on test scores, and the city must exhaust the top-finishing group before moving down to the group that finished second best.
It’s analogous to assigning letter grades to applicants, with A students getting first crack at jobs before B students can be considered. As a candidate, Houston said that hiring tests should be pass/fail, which would increase the size of the eligibility pool and the number of minorities within it. But tests are still graded more than a year after Houston took office, and the mayor now says the city can’t use pass/fail exams.
“What I’ve been told by our corporation counsel is, we cannot do that,” said Houston, who couldn’t provide any further details. “I can’t give you a specific reason, other than they found no authorization in the statutes to be able to do that.”
Corporation counsel Mark Cullen said that a law that passed during the most recent legislative session doesn’t allow pass/fail tests when hiring firefighters.
“I don’t think that they (municipalities) can at this point,” Cullen said. “It (the new law) mandates a whole different type of process in establishing eligibility lists.”
Not true, according to the bill’s sponsor, the president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois and an attorney for the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association who helped draft the bill that’s now awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature to become law.
State Rep. Lisa Dugan, D-Kankakee, said that she was only codifying what was already required by the state when she sponsored bills last year and this year that established minimum standards for hiring firefighters. Under the law that passed last year, candidates for firefighting positions must achieve at least the average test score, plus 10 percent, to be hired. That requirement was replaced this past legislative session when the General Assembly unanimously passed a bill that says applicants for firefighting positions must rank above the median score to be hired.
“Half of the people would qualify and move on and half would not pass,” says Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois, which pushed for uniform minimum standards to replace inconsistent ones contained in three different statutes.
Karl Ottosen, attorney for the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, allows that it sounds like pass/fail, exactly what Cullen and Houston say the state has banned.
“But that’s not what it’s called,” says Ottosen, who helped draft the bill, which Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign. “It’s a cut-off score.”
As a woman who worked as an electrician before becoming a legislator, Dugan said that she would not have sponsored a bill that would put minorities or anyone else at a disadvantage when applying for jobs traditionally held by white men. She added that the state already had minimum testing requirements that mirrored those in her bill, but they weren’t always followed.
“There was nothing in the bill that in any way, shape or form would limit minorities or women from becoming firefighters,” Dugan said. “I’m not sure what Springfield’s talking about, that we put something in place that’s any different than what we had before.”
Dugan’s bill wasn’t front-page news, but it wasn’t under the radar. The Illinois Municipal League tracked it and ultimately took a neutral position. Dugan said she heard from several fire chiefs and mayors.
“Some mayors called me direct,” Dugan said. “Through all the months it took me to get this bill to the floor for a vote, I never heard from the mayor of Springfield.”
If anything, the new law will make it easier for fire departments to hire minorities because it establishes a statewide hiring list in addition to setting minimum requirements for departments that have their own hiring procedures. The upshot is, if departments can’t find qualified minority applicants on their own, they would be able to look for candidates on the statewide list, which is supposed to be developed by the state fire marshal.
“It’s hoped that within a year it (the statewide list) will be there – the hope is sooner,” Ottosen said. “The firefighters’ union thought a statewide list would make it easier for communities to get minorities or females on their department.”
Fustin, who is familiar with the new state law, says he doesn’t think that it will increase the number of minority hires in Springfield, where 618 of the 833 applicants who took the most recent written and oral exams passed the tests and were put into groups based on their scores. Ten of the 52 applicants in the top two groups were minorities.
“My gut reaction, just looking at it, I don’t think it’s (the new state law is) going to do anything to help our process,” said Fustin, who isn’t keen on a statewide hiring list. “My first gut feeling is, I would want to hire people with an interest in the Springfield Fire Department and not necessarily a person who has taken a state test. What type of commitment, what type of values will they bring to the Springfield Fire Department over a resident of Springfield or the Springfield area?”
“Plans take time”
Exams are pass/fail for would-be Sangamon County sheriff’s deputies, and sheriff Neil Williamson, who makes the final call on hiring county cops, says that’s a good thing.
“All you need to do is get a 70 to pass the test,” Williamson says. “All I know is, here’s the list with 50 people on it, and they passed the test. I can take anybody on that list that I want to. Now, I look at my department, where’s my minority makeup? Do I have enough females? Do I have enough minority representation?”
The Sangamon County sheriff’s office employs 63 deputies, including 54 white men, three white women, one black woman and five black men – it works out to nearly 10 percent of the force being African-American. That’s double the percentage of black officers who patrol Springfield, which has a higher black population than unincorporated Sangamon County, where Williamson’s deputies patrol.
Williamson’s department isn’t the only one in central Illinois that is doing better than Springfield. In Champaign, slightly more than 7 percent of the city’s 96 firefighters are minorities; more than 10 percent of the city’s police officers are minorities.
Springfield police chief Rob Williams says he wants more minorities in his department, but, after two decades as a city cop, he doesn’t have an opinion on pass/fail exams for prospective officers, even though the mayor, his boss, said it was a good idea while on the campaign trail.
“I haven’t really thought about the specifics,” Williams says when asked about pass/fail. “No matter what system they adopt, it’s my job to increase the applicant pool (of minorities).”
During the most recent round of testing, 83 of the 387 applicants for jobs as police officers were minorities, according to the city’s human resources department, and two of the 13 applicants hired in May and June were minorities.
Then there is the Springfield Fire Department, where 127 of the 833 applicants who took the most recent tests were minorities and 19 of the 21 most recent hires were white in a department that is now nearly 97 percent white.
Fustin says he’s not ready for pass/fail tests for prospective firefighters, which he fears could result in a flood of qualified applicants – even with the current system, more than 600 people made it through written and oral exams and were grouped into so-called bands based on their scores. A dozen applicants remain from the top two bands, and they have first dibs on jobs, presuming they pass background checks, psychological tests and physical agility tests. The city is now interviewing 138 applicants who are in the group that scored third highest, although a timetable for additional hiring hasn’t been established.
“I think that the system that we currently have, while it may not meet the intended minority makeup of the fire department, I think the spirit is good,” Fustin says.
At the beginning of an interview, Fustin professes himself displeased with the number of minorities in his department. He has trouble answering when asked for his plan to improve the numbers.
“That’s something I’ll have to ponder and think (about),” Fustin says. “I could think about recruiting. I could think about the hiring process. I could think about 100 things.”
And so the man in charge of a department that is virtually all white in a city where the mayor long ago promised a fix cannot articulate a plan.
After 15 minutes of talking about how firefighters are hired, Fustin asks to revisit the what’s-your-plan question.
“I think we need to continue to get out into our community and be advocates for how good a profession this is, outside of the financial package,” says the chief as he recalls a visit to a fire station with his father when he was a young boy. “Something clicked, and I knew I wanted to be a fireman. We need to figure out a way to get into our community and get those ideas planted in young members of our community. We need to get the seed planted earlier and more often to make people realize that this is a very valued profession.”
Fustin talks about getting firefighters into public schools and setting up an Explorer post for youth. The department once had an Explorer post, he says, but the program ended about a year ago when the guy (and the Springfield Fire Department is virtually all guys) who ran it went back to school to get his master’s degree. The department has talked with the Springfield school district about setting up an adopt-a-school program in which fire companies would have regular contact with students, appearing at pep rallies and other functions.
“We hope to have that rolled out next fall,” Fustin said. “Plans take time. We may need to look at the hiring process in whole. That takes time and money. … We have about 33 percent smaller staff than we did three or four years ago. There’s only so many hours in the day to get the work done.”
“We’ve tried everything”
In the police department, Chief Williams repeats a strategy that’s been tried since Clinton was in the White House: Get the word out about job openings. In other words, talk.
“I’d love for the racial makeup of the department to reflect that of the community,” Williams said. “We’ll constantly be working to meet that goal. Most of all, it’s an educational process – when there are openings, letting them (minorities) know there are openings. … I would say we have to become more creative.”
There is one inescapable truth: The only way to increase the number of minorities is to hire more minorities. That is easier said than done, according to Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, who was the city’s fire chief a decade ago.
“It’s always easier to say ‘Let’s do this’ than actually do it,” Edwards says. “All I can tell you is, we did everything that everyone else has done. We tried to work with the ministerial alliance. We tried to expand the recruiting. We tried suggestions from everybody. We’ve tried everything.”
Edwards says he hasn’t lost hope. Perhaps, he suggests, city residents who now get added points when applying for positions should get even more consideration.
“I score a 92, you score a 70 and you live in the city, you go to the top of the list, period,” Edwards said.
Giving preference to city residents might winnow out white applicants while increasing the number of minorities, Edwards said, but it isn’t fail-safe, given that a black man who lived in North Carolina was offered a job as a firefighter in January but turned the city down.
Houston says someone might question whether the city could institute a residency requirement for hiring.
“It’s an interesting concept,” the mayor says. “To be honest with you, no one has brought that up.”
Another thing that hasn’t been tried is being a defendant in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil-rights division, which sues police and fire departments with lackluster minority hiring records, including several that have higher percentages of minorities than departments in Springfield.
In New York, the federal government in 2009 won a lawsuit filed against the city because 3 percent of the Big Apple’s firefighters were black, 4.5 percent were Hispanic and written tests given to job applicants resulted in few minority hires. In Maryland, the Department of Justice earlier this year began investigating the Baltimore County police and fire departments, which is often a prelude to litigation, to determine why 11 percent of police officers were black and 15.6 percent of firefighters were African-American in a county with a black workforce of 26 percent.
In Springfield, the local U.S. attorney isn’t ready to sue.
“If people want to resolve it without litigation, they surely can,” says U.S. attorney James Lewis, who was arrested three times in Mississippi during the 1960s, twice while he was picketing government buildings to demand voting rights for blacks and a third time when he joined blacks to go swimming in a state park. “Like any other citizen, I am concerned. If people in the community want to sit down around the table and discuss the measures that have been taken, what’s worked, what hasn‘t worked and what needs to be done, I would be happy to sit at that table with them and participate in that discussion.”
Litigation got results during the 1980s, when blacks sued Springfield under the federal Voting Rights Act and the city was forced to install an aldermanic form of government to replace a commissioner system that had never seen a black person elected to city office. But a lawsuit against the city filed a dozen years ago by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which argued that hiring exams for police officers and firefighters were biased against blacks, hasn’t helped.
In 2001, the year after the NAACP sued the city, four of the top 10 candidates on the hiring list for new police officers were black. The parties settled the case later that year, with the city agreeing to work toward increasing minority employment and the NAACP agreeing to help recruit job candidates. The 2001 decree expired last year with minority employment in the police and fire departments substantially the same as a decade ago.
Frank McNeil, former alderman and a plaintiff in the voting-rights lawsuit that changed Springfield’s form of government, said that he contacted the Department of Justice several years ago about minority employment in the city’s police department but never heard back. In any case, he said he doesn’t believe the answer lies in litigation. The mayor, he says, needs to turn rhetoric into action, and part of that is moving to pass/fail exams. There would be some outcry, McNeil said, but he noted that Houston while a candidate said that he would serve just one term.
“If he’s going to be a one-termer, he shouldn’t care,” McNeil said. “There’s more than talk that’s necessary now. There’s a need for some assertiveness on the part of the mayor.
“We need to change the situation in Springfield.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com