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Study of L.A. Fire Dept. Cites Race, Gender Bias : Work e rs: Chief calls it a 'hatchet job.' Officials deny that women and minorities are harassed, kept from top jobs.

November 12, 1994|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite 20 years of affirmative action policies in the Los Angeles City Fire Department, women and minorities have been locked out of top-level posts and reportedly subjected to widespread sexual and racial harassment at "rookie kill stations," where efforts are made to run them out of the department, according to a city audit.

The department also suffers from a perception of "nepotism, cronyism" and a promotional system based on "who you know," the Personnel Department found in a confidential study obtained by The Times.

"A great deal of work remains to be done by the Fire Department, not only to create a work force which reflects the community it serves, but to establish and maintain a healthy, positive working environment which encourages success for all its members," said the draft 225-page report, which was commissioned by the City Council in April in response to numerous complaints from minority firefighters. They included allegations of hazing, isolation, ridicule for making mistakes and a lack of promotional opportunities.

"There must be a concerted effort on the part of Fire Department management to dispel the perception and incidence of nepotism, cronyism, differential application of discipline, differential treatment of women and minorities and a 'good old boy' syndrome," the report said.

Officials in the 3,100-member department disputed the report's findings Friday, saying they were based on unscientific methodology, inaccurate figures and anonymous statements from a small number of biased firefighters.

"It is just rife with inaccuracies and absolutely incorrect information," said Assistant Chief Dean E. Cathey, a department spokesman. "It's the shabbiest piece of staff work that I have ever seen."

"It's clearly a hatchet job," said Fire Chief Donald O. Manning, who said the sampling of firefighters interviewed represented a scant 2% of the department.

The report, which will be made public Wednesday at a hearing of the council's Personnel Committee, was based on an analysis of hiring practices since 1974 and interviews with 84 former and current firefighters. Among the findings:

* Of the 20 top department officials and administrators, 95% are white men, and there are no Asian Americans, women or blacks. Minority representation in those ranks is less than it was in 1990, when white men held 83% of the chief, deputy chief and assistant chief slots.

* Women and minority firefighters reported a significant amount of hostility at eight so-called "kill stations," where "management allegedly sends (female and minority rookies) specifically to see them fail." At these stations, also called "houses of pain," the firefighters said they were ostracized and given inadequate training.

* At other stations, captains called Latinos "lazy Mexicans" and told a rookie African American firefighter: "I don't want to see your black ass make it."

* Officials who hold key administrative positions that serve as promotional springboards are often allowed to recommend their replacements. Information about promotions is not widely publicized. Consequently, "members outside those circles do not have a clear idea of the qualifications management is seeking."

* The department needs to develop comprehensive manuals addressing race discrimination and sex discrimination in the workplace.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who requested the audit, said Friday the report highlights longstanding problems that have been tolerated by department officials. He said he did not doubt the accuracy of the findings.

"There's an obvious problem here that simply has to be corrected," he said. "I'm very anxious to see how the department is going to step up to the plate and correct these problems."

Said Fire Commissioner Larry Gonzalez: "I have received a number of complaints from minority firefighters, particularly Latinos, who have said to me it is very difficult to promote within the department. . . . I don't need a report to tell me there is a problem."

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg had read only about 40 pages of the report Friday but said she was particularly troubled that officials are able to recommend their own replacements.

"One thing for sure, we need a merit-based system," said Goldberg, chairwoman of the Personnel Committee.

Chief Manning has proposed a department reorganization that would increase minority and female hiring and promotion by starting career guidance programs and beefing up outreach efforts. The plan would also improve tracking of discrimination allegations and revise complaint procedures.

The department was not integrated until after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Since 1974, the department has operated under a federal consent decree that settled a discrimination lawsuit. The department agreed that at least half of all new recruits would be black, Latino or Asian American each year until the percentages of those minorities in the department equaled the percentages in the city population.

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