Chicago Alderman wants more African Americans eligible for Fire Dept's top tiers

Chicago Alderman wants more African Americans eligible for Fire Dept's top tiers
Photo by Nick Moroni

In a push for more diversity amongst the Chicago Fire Department's top brass, the chairman of the City Council's Black Caucus asked yesterday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel delay an upcoming promotional exam.

Twenty-first Ward Alderman Howard Brookins, Jr. wants Emanuel to postpone the April 21 battalion chief exam because holding it this month would almost ensure what the Chicago Sun-Times called "a lily-white leadership team for the next decade."

Currently, there are only 14 African American fire captains, citywide, according to the Sun-Times story. And only captains are eligible to take the exam. What's more, three are expected to retire by November, leaving only 11 eligible.

Lt. James Harvey is a black firefighter at the 6th District station in Trumbull Park on the far Southwest Side.

He broke down the current crop of test-takers for the Sun-Times:

“If this exam is given in April, you’ll only have nine blacks who’ll be taking the exam out of 187 possible captains. As a result, these people will lock up these positions and you won’t have any black chiefs with the exception of those nine for the entire city,” Harvey said.

Brookins wants the exam to be held next February or March. Between now and then, some 200 retirements are expected, which could reportedly lead to over a dozen more African Americans being promoted to captains. The promotions mean they would be able to take the test.

Harvey is one of those firefighters that could be promoted to captain.

“If ... you wait for those 200 people retiring, those positions will open up and allow at least 11 or 12 more blacks and one Hispanic to take the chief’s exam. If we don’t do that, those positions will be occupied by approximately 96 percent white firefighters,” he said.

Emanuel didn't rule out postponing the exam, but he hasn't exactly said anything firm on the matter.

"What has happened is ... that [Fire] Commissioner [Jose] Santiago is considering all options for diversifying the department," Tom Alexander, a spokesperson for Emanuel, told The Chicago Reporter.

Alexander said, right now, Emanuel also supports "considering all options."

Whatever that means.

The mayor has said that he is dedicated to diversifying the fire department, which historically has been almost entirely white.

Brookins' and the Black Caucus' call for a later exam comes less than a week after Emanuel made a surprise visit to the Chicago Fire Academy to cheer on 111 black firefighters who were recently hired following a federal court order.

A federal appeals court ordered their hiring last year, after it was determined that a 1995 entrance exam unfairly discriminated against them. The city was also ordered to pay at least $45 million to the roughly 6,000 who applied in 1995, which includes compensation to the 111 who have now been hired by the fire department.

The City Council also confirmed Santiago as fire commissioner at Thursday's regular meeting. Following the confirmation, Santiago, told the Sun-Times "we must assure that this department reflects the diversity and ideas, background and people of Chicago."

As for delaying the exam?

"Above my pay grade," Santiago said.

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