FDNY: Black, White and Transgender


Within days of a federal judge’s finding that the FDNY had a pattern and practice of discrimination against minority candidates, the department revealed that it had its first transgender firefighter. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

By all accounts, the male-to-female firefighter – identified as “Brooke”— has been openly welcomed by the FDNY. Long criticized for its lack of diversity, the FDNY is being hailed for breaking a barrier. The department has openly gay firefighters but has long been the subject of civil suits alleging discrimination against minorities and women. Allegations that Judge Garaufis found to be true given evidence of the disparate impact of the department’s hiring and promotion practices.

It’s important to note that Brooke is a third generation firefighter. According to one FDNY source, “Brooke’s transition won’t matter to those who know and respect her family.”

Finally, the boys at the FDNY have a woman who is the equal of any man in the department. In the words of Tommy Gavin, the fictional firefighter on FX’s Rescue Me, “…the FDNY doesn’t discriminate; we want guys who are made of steel.”

Having the right family connections and being made out of steel seem to be the major qualifications for admission into the fraternity of NYC firefighters. White candidates with arrest records but a relative on the job were hired, while black aspirants with misdemeanor arrest records but no one to vouch for them were not. Maybe Gavin was exaggerating about being made out of steel.

This issue is not about affirmative action or establishing a quota system. The FDNY has never been a civil service meritocracy. The trial record established that the FDNY has had in place an informal affirmative action and legacy program for white applicants. The department’s character and fitness panel didn’t have written guidelines governing its policies and procedures. Judge Garaufis’ decision seeks to level the playing field from recruitment to hiring through promotion.

African Americans were delighted to have official confirmation that the FDNY has not remained 93% white for over forty years by accident. Judge Garaufis said it was a shameful blight on the record of SIX mayors. While cities from Boston to New Haven to Oklahoma City were forced by federal courts to integrate their fire departments, six New York City mayors sat on their hands and whistled “Dixie.”

Mayor Bloomberg deserves public rebuke for refusing to take seriously various recommendations urging hiring reforms at the FDNY. His embrace of reform and social engineering stopped at the firehouse door.

This week, Bloomberg insisted that the special monitor to oversee the FDNY was unnecessary because “the facts in the case do not justify such an appointment.” I suggest that His Honor read the entire trial record and his own damning deposition.

During his deposition, Mayor Bloomberg denied know what “responsibility” was. I was heart-broken by Bill Clinton’s quibble about the meaning of “is” and I was outraged by El Bloombito’s “no hablo inglés” defense during his deposition. He refused to accept any responsibility for mayoral agencies (under his control) noncompliance with his equal employment opportunity rules.

But such testimony is not inconsistent with his testimonies in the John Haggerty trial, where he is the alleged victim of a $1.1 million rip-off, and in the various sex discrimination lawsuits brought against Bloomberg, Inc. In the courtroom, Bloomberg becomes Sgt. Schultz, but outside the courtroom, he’s master of his domain.

Unlike the other city uniformed services, firefighters live in their own insulated fortresses of solitude until –like superheroes— they emerge to save lives and property. I recall the awe I felt when my first-grade class visited our local hook and ladder firehouse on Prospect Avenue. Little did we know that aspiring to be a fireman would likely remain an aspiration rather than become a reality for my naive classmates and me.

New Yorkers should be happy with Judge Garaufis’ decision and his method of injunctive relief that emphasizes results, not just efforts. Almost forty years after other less progressive, less diverse cities were forced to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; the FDNY will finally get in step and remove this stain upon its record of service and sacrifice.

The judicial oversight will last for ten years at which point a new trial will be held to evaluate the city’s performance. Hopefully by 2021, the FDNY will prove worthy of Tommy Gavin’s pronouncement and that its “men of steel” will reflect our city’s great diversity and merit our esteem.

About SquarePegDem

A former state legislator turned NY Post editorial board member, thought-leader, public affairs consultant and commentator, columnist and blogger. Michael has appeared on Al Jazeera America Tonight, NY1/Inside City Hall, FoxNews.com LIVE, YNN/Capital Tonight, The Brian Lehrer Show, The Fred Dicker Show, The Capitol Press Room, and The Daily Show. His op-eds have appeared in the NY Post, City and State, The Legislative Gazette, Bronx Times, The Troy Record, Buffalo News, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. To schedule speaking engagements, email MBenjamin9@optimum.net.
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