Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a settlement to pay $98 million in back pay, including $6 million in medical benefits, to those who have filed claims against the New York City Fire Department on grounds of racial bias. As part of the settlement, the fire department also agreed to create the position of chief of diversity, who will report directly to the fire commissioner, and a diversity advocate who will monitor hiring practices and training for discrimination.
For years, civil rights groups have advocated on behalf of minorities whose efforts to join the fire department have been unsuccessful due to institutional biases. Civil rights groups have argued that the entrance exams used by the fire department were biased against minority applicants. Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the Federal Court in Brooklyn, N.Y. ruled that the entrance examination was indeed a violation of civil rights laws and the U.S. Constitution. As such, he ordered the creation of a new exam and reforms in hiring practices, which were overseen by a court-appointed monitor. Although Judge Garaufis’ ruling was appealed, the City did not dispute the ruling that the entrance exam was discriminatory, but rather, it challenged the notion that the discrimination was intentional.
As litigation continued, however, a new exam was designed, the fire department increased recruiting in minority neighborhoods and implemented special training sessions for new recruits. From 2002 to 2013, the percentage of minorities in the department grew from 8 percent to 16 percent, and in December, the most-racially diverse class in the history of the fire department graduated from the fire academy.