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Black D.C. firefighters allege widespread discrimination in federal lawsuit

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Friday, October 15, 2010; 11:25 PM

A lawsuit Friday by about 30 black firefighters alleges systematic racial discrimination within the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, claiming that black employees face harsher discipline, are promoted less often and confront a hostile work environment imposed by white supervisors.

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The 31-page suit, which lawyers say was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, contains information potentially embarrassing to the department. It refers by name to at least 10 white firefighters accused or convicted of various misconduct. It also refers to black firefighters who committed similar offenses.

In a virtual rap sheet, the suit describes cases in which firefighters have been arrested for stalking, assault and illegal handgun possession; disciplined for fighting or injuring fellow firefighters with knives and plates; and investigated for e-mailing images of their sexual organs to female colleagues and cooking naked in firehouses.

"I have been trying disciplinary cases before the department for years, and time after time, I see that disciplinary actions taken against African Americans are different from disciplinary actions against whites for the same alleged offenses," said plaintiff's lawyer Donna Rucker of the D.C. law firm Gebhardt & Associates.

Pete Piringer, spokesman for the D.C. fire department, declined comment Friday, saying officials had not had the opportunity to review the lawsuit.

In its scope and specificity, the suit threatens to renew racial tensions in the 2,200-worker department, which was riven by similar disputes in the 1970s and 1980s.

The new case follows the May 2007 confirmation of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's choice for fire chief, Dennis L. Rubin, who is white, and the month before that, a federal jury's rejection of a reverse discrimination case brought by 23 white officers who alleged they were denied promotion.

The suit acknowledges that more than half the department is African American. But it claims that since October 2007, senior white officers have "created a climate of fear and intimidation" by abusing their power and punishing black firefighters of all ranks more severely.

It seeks class-action status for as many as 1,000 black firefighters.

In addition to the District, Fenty and Rubin, the suit names as defendants two other assistant fire chiefs, Lawrence Schultz, who is white, and Brian Lee.

While the basis of the new claims remain to be sorted out, the rival lawsuits by white and black officers echo the fierce racial litigation after the District achieved home rule in the early 1970s. As the predominantly white fire department began to mirror the majority-black city, whites and blacks split into different unions, sued, and each won court victories in proving they were victims of city policies over the next two decades.

Promotions that were halted because of lawsuits resumed in the early 1990s. However, they were interrupted again during the reverse-discrimination case in 2006.

The D.C. fire department promotes officers in part based on scores on promotional exams. According to the new lawsuit, a 2006 list of officers eligible for promotion included 18 black and 15 white firefighters. However, the black officers say that list was set aside after a 2008 examination included 24 white and nine black firefighters.

"The Department deliberately allowed the predominantly African American 2006 list to expire in order to promote white firefighters," the suit claims.

The suit also alleges that in 2010, when examiners were sequestered from test-takers, white officers received unauthorized private "coaching."

By comparison, the failed 2006 suit by white captains alleged that then-Fire Chief Ronnie Few, in choosing to interview 12 of about 55 captains eligible for promotion, selected black officers at a disproportionately high rate compared with the overall pool.

Specifically, the case's lead plaintiff, Lt. Gerald Burton of Lanham, alleged that he was suspended more than one week for violating operating guidelines in ordering his engine to put out a fire. He claimed that white firefighters, including Chief Rubin, received lesser or no penalties for violating the rules under less compelling circumstances.


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