Los Angeles’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, has promised to put an end to the race and gender discrimination complaints that have plagued the city’s fire department for many years and to bring “much-needed change to the culture there.” Much of that will fall on the shoulders of the new fire chief. The new chief, when appointed, will be stepping into a quagmire of employment discrimination complaints that have cost the city millions of dollars just in the last couple of years, and a department that does not reflect the city’s diversity.
Some of the cases against the Los Angeles Fire Department have gotten a lot of press, while others have not. Most people in the area remember the case of the African-American firefighter who received $1.5 million after his fellow firefighters surreptitiously fed him dog food as a prank. A case that received less notoriety was that of the LAFD’s first female African-American firefighter. She received nearly a third of a million dollars for nearly 20 years of discrimination, the department’s unwillingness to allow her to recruit and train other women and retaliation after she complained about the discrimination. Meanwhile, the percentage of uniformed female firefighters in the LAFD is no better than it was in 1995 – under 3 percent.
In 2009, voters approved the appointment of an independent assessor to monitor discrimination complaints. However, the first person appointed to the post criticized the lack of support he received from the LAFD and the city attorney’s office. Mayor Garcetti promises that the new assessor will be provided what he or she requires “to help bring real reform to the department.”
The situation has gotten so bad that the federal government as stepped in. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now monitors the LAFD’s training on discrimination. A civil rights attorney who has represented some of the plaintiffs says that federal oversight is necessary because the LAFD “failed to rid itself of a culture of bias against firefighters who aren’t white men.”
Change has been slow to come to the LAFD. Despite Mayor Garcetti’s and others good intentions, the cases of discrimination and harassment in the ranks are likely to continue. Anyone who has endured this type of behavior on the job can and should seek legal representation to protect his or her rights and hold individuals and the organization for which they work accountable for their actions.
The Los Angeles Times, “Next L.A. fire chief’s other challenge: race and sex discrimination” Michael Finnegan and Ben Welsh, Dec. 01, 2013