One Judge Takes on Racism at the New York Fire Department

Testimony is underway that will air the department's 'dirty linen'

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A story today in the New York Daily News revealed some pretty stunning insinuations about hiring at the New York Fire Department. Testifying in a civil bench trial in federal court yesterday, a former fire department deputy commissioner starkly described how nepotism among white firefighters helped keep black firefighters from getting jobs in the department. Another official said he saw no problem with hiring two former New York City Police officers who beat murder charges in the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Daily News reporter John Marzulli had this testimony from the former deputy commissioner, Patricia Kavaler:

"You would have lieutenants and captains. . . . 'This is the son of so and so. I lived next-door to him for years, he's a good guy.'

"'He beat his wife but his wife took him back so he shouldn't be considered a wife beater,'" she said in her 2008 statement, describing the types of calls made on behalf of troubled white candidates. "'He still could be a good firefighter.'"

Some were willing to stick their necks out for the questionable potential hires. "And people would say, 'I know this guy, his son has got to come on the job, I will vouch for him,' " she recalled.

The deposition went on the record in a Brooklyn federal court case, where a group of black firefighters known as the Vulcans is "trying to get a special monitor to oversee reform in the Fire Department," Marzulli reported. It's likely to be the first in a series of testimony that, as Judge Nicholas Garaufis told the New York Post, will air the "Fire Department's dirty linen."

Garaufis has been here before. Garaufis has presided over the massive suit, filed by the federal government against the City of New York in 2007, that alleges racism in the department. Over the last four years, he's handed down a series of decisions, etched in memorably strong language, following on his first finding that entrance exams were biased.

  • In July 2009 Garaufis found that the department's entrance exam was biased against black and Latino applicants, writing that, while the city's minority population had increased since the founding of its fire department, "the overwhelmingly monochromatic composition of the F.D.N.Y. has stubbornly persisted."
  • In January 2010, Garaufis found that the department had engaged in intentional discrimination by continuing to use its entrance exam, and had a "pattern, practice and policy of intentional discrimination against black applicants that has deep historical antecedents and uniquely disabling effects."  He also ordered the city to offer jobs and retroactive seniority to nearly 300 applicants who had taken the test but not been hired.
  • In May 2010, Garaufis appointed former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to oversee hiring in the department, saying the city "does not appear to understand that it already lost this case, and that its obligation now is not to fight tooth and nail against the possibility of change, but to move with alacrity to cure its illegal practices. Put bluntly, the constitutional rights of thousands of its citizens are at stake." But the city objected and Morgenthau eventually withdrew from the role.
  • In October 2010, Garaufis blocked the city from hiring new firefighters altogether, saying it couldn't recruit until it had implemented new, more equitable hiring practices. 
  • Last week, Garaufis ruled that the city couldn't raise the fee to take a fire exam to $54, nor could the fee go any higher than $30. The decision came as the department started a push to recruit people of color with a visit to an African-American church.

The city's ongoing struggle to iron out its Fire Department hiring hasn't been the judge's only concern in his career. Since his appointment to the bench in New York's Eastern District by then-president Bill Clinton in 2000, Garaufis has ruled on some high-profile cases, including the recent prosecution of a major New York mob boss. He's also presided over a workplace sexual harassment suit among professional wrestlers. But the Fire Department hiring case is turning out to be one of his longest-running and most contentious, and it's not over yet. Next, Garaufis will decide whether to appoint a monitor to oversee the department's hiring effort, and that will likely be a whole new fight.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.