After Four Years, Feds End Oversight Of Austin Fire Department’s Hiring

AUSTIN, TX — The U.S Department of Justice has ended its oversight of Austin Fire Department’s hiring processes after allowing a legal settlement regarding racial discrimination to expire.

Federal officials could have continued their oversight of the Fire Department’s hiring of new firefighters for four years, according to a memo sent from interim Fire Chief Tom Dodds to the Austin City Council on Tuesday, but the Justice Department did not find “good cause” to extend the settlement, also known as a consent decree.

In 2013, Department of Justice officials announced that they had found evidence that Hispanics and African-Americans were discriminated against during the hiring process, and that they were less likely to be hired than white applicants because of how the Austin Fire Department ranked eligible applicants.

As federal officials investigated allegations of discrimination, all new hiring was halted for a time. Eventually, federal officials determined that the city’s new hiring process also was flawed. The Justice Department did not claim the discrimination was intentional but said it deprived African-Americans and Hispanics of an equal footing alongside white candidates.

“However, we recognized based on the statistical results from DOJ’s investigation that we could improve how we conduct our hiring to make sure we are hiring all of the very best firefighters — regardless of race or national origin,” Dodds wrote in the memo to City Council members.

In 2014, the Austin City Council approved a settlement with the Justice Department, agreeing to pay up to $780,000 to unsuccessful firefighter applicants for back pay and to set aside 30 new positions for African-American and Hispanic candidates.

“Complying with the consent decree has been highly complex and challenging, but we honestly believe it has improved our hiring process and thus made us a better Department,” Dodds wrote.

Firefighter union president Bob Nicks told the Statesman on Tuesday that federal oversight of the department’s hiring process hindered efforts to fill vacancies that resulted from the hiring freeze imposed by the Justice Department.

“We couldn’t hire as many as we would have liked to,” Nicks said. “Though we were catching up, we weren’t catching up as quickly as we would have liked.”

As the rate of retirements from the department doubled, overtime costs climbed. In 2017, the issue spilled into public view as some City Council members questioned why the Fire Department’s overtime shifts had spiked. The issue led to a $3.5 million emergency budget appropriation to the Fire Department to pay for the overtime. At the time, the department reported having 124 vacancies.

During the four years the consent decree was in place, the Fire Department hired 261 firefighters, including 21 African-Americans and 67 Hispanics, the memo said. With it lifted, the department will be freed up to hire applicants at a quicker rate, Nicks said.

“We are very happy that we are out from underneath the consent decree,” he said.

Whites still make up about three-quarters of the Austin Fire Department while accounting for less than half of the city’s population. To match the city’s existing demographics, the department would need to have nearly twice as many Hispanic firefighters in the ranks. In addition, while minorities account for 40 percent of the department’s assistant chiefs, all the division chiefs are white men.

“We can feel good about the consent decree going away,” said Paul Saldaña, co-founder of Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin. “There was a lot of money spent that led to challenges. … But at the end of the day, there is clearly more work to do.”

From The Austin American-Statesman

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