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Lynwood Hit With $5-Million Claim of Racial Bias Filed by Rejected Fireman

January 25, 1987|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — A $5-million claim alleging racial discrimination has been filed against the city by a black firefighter from Texas who was rejected when he applied for a job on the 36-person Lynwood Fire Department.

The discrimination charge has spurred both a plan to put more minorities on the Fire Department and a squabble between Mayor Paul H. Richards and Councilman Robert Henning.

Lynwood, which is about 40% black, has no black firefighters. There are three Latinos and one woman.

Houston firefighter Gregory E. Handy says in his claim that he suffered "severe emotional distress" because of "discriminatory hiring policies and tactics used against blacks by the city."

In addition to the claim, Handy has filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

25 Qualified for Job Waiting List

Handy could not be reached for comment last week. In October, however, Handy told the City Council that he had passed a written examination and agility test but after taking an oral exam was informed by letter from the city's personnel department that he had failed to qualify for placement on a waiting list for a job.

Handy, 28, said he was informed that he fell short of making the list of 25 qualifying applicants.

"I have 3 1/2 years of experience. Many people (applicants) I spoke with said they had no experience. With my qualifications, I want to know why wasn't I hired," Handy said.

The city has not yet responded to Handy's claim, said E. Kurt Yeager , the city's attorney.

H. Clay Jacke II, Handy's lawyer, said he intends to file a lawsuit if the city rejects the claim. Jacke, who practices in Los Angeles, said he would give Lynwood "a reasonable amount of time" to respond. He said he was not sure if he would file the suit in federal or state court.

Because of the legal claim, Yeager said he has advised city officials not to make specific comments on the issue.

Proposal to Achieve Racial Balance

However, a press conference was held Thursday by Mayor Richards in a effort, he said, to "reduce the level of racial tension" that has appeared to develop.

Richards outlined a "proposal for achieving racial balance" in the Fire Department that has been unanimously approved by the City Council.

The plan calls for on-the-job training with the Fire Department for five trainees, at least 25 city-funded $500 scholarships for residents to attend fire science courses at nearby Compton College and a project where firefighters would hold seminars and workshops for area residents interested in firefighting careers.

It is his prediction, Richards said, that within six months "there will be a pool of qualified and certified minority applicants ready to apply for the job or be promoted into a position."

"It is heart warming that both the black and white members of the council voted for the plan," he said. There are three blacks and two whites on the council.

Details to Be Worked Out

The city staff has been asked to work out specific details of how the plan will be implemented, Richards said.

During the press conference, heated words were exchanged between Richards and Councilman Henning, who first brought Handy's complaint to the council.

"I'd like to know where you got this statement from," Henning shouted at Richards as the mayor read a press release that stated in part " . . . the Lynwood Fire Department has been villainized as being a racist institution."

"That statement is a straight-out lie," Henning said. "I'd like to know who called the Fire Department a 'racist institution.' "

Richards, who did not respond to Henning's question, accused Henning of "trying to sabotage" his press conference.

Fire Chief Responds

During the press conference, Richards asked Fire Chief Ron Lathrope to respond in general terms as to why minority applicants have failed to qualify in the past.

"Generally, so many qualified people take the tests, it is difficult to get a job no matter what race. It is extremely difficult to get a job," Lathrope said, adding that few minorities apply for firefighters' jobs.

In October, Handy spoke before the council at Henning's request. At that time, Henning, who was mayor, said that since blacks and Latinos make up most of the city's 50,000 residents, the Fire Department should also have some blacks.

"An all-white department. It is disgraceful," Henning said at the October meeting.

At that time, Henning and Councilwoman Evelyn Wells voted to hire Handy immediately. The effort, however, failed when Councilman John Byork and Councilman E. L. Morris abstained. The fifth council seat was vacant at the time, but was filled by Richards in a special election in November.

Investigation Under Way

The council has agreed to a hiring freeze while an investigation is being conducted into the Fire Department's hiring practices. There are three openings on the department.

Cooperative Personnel Services, a nonprofit corporation with branches in Los Angeles and Sacramento, was hired for $3,960 to conduct the investigation. Completion of the study is expected by March.

Rudy Frank, a consultant for the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said that a determination would be made whether to accept the complaint filed by Handy. If the agency does, it could take up to 10 months to determine if discrimination had occurred, he said.

The agency can hold hearings and award compensatory and or punitive damages "depending on the nature of the complaint," Frank said.

Handy grew up in the Compton area, attended Verbum Dei High School in South-Central Los Angeles and wants to return to the area, said Cheryl Gilcrest, his fiance.

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