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Firefighter union leader: Evidence against discrimination ‘suppressed’

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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The president of the Austin Firefighters Association says that his organization was “kept in the dark” about fire cadet test results that undermine charges the department discriminates.

Bob Nicks wrote on his firefighter union’s website that Austin fire chief Rhoda Mae Kerr “knew the results” of the Austin fire cadet 2013 exam “before she supported a consent decree” which would let the Department of Justice shape the hiring process for Austin firefighters to increase the number of black and Hispanic cadets.

But emails — which Nicks shared with The Daily Caller News Foundation — show that Dr. Davis Morris, a testing consultant, informed Kerr and other city officials that the 2013 fire cadet exam was not discriminatory.

“I am pleased to report that there is no adverse impact against any protected group,” wrote Morris in the August 6, 2013 email.

“The diversity for African Americans within the first 100 candidates actually exceeds parity of the number of African Americans applying and significantly exceeds diversity of African Americans in the City’s population.”

Nicks says that Kerr and the city officials “suppressed” Morris’ assessment, even putting a gag order on the consultant and stonewalling the Austin Firefighters Association’s efforts to obtain the results of the 2013 test. The firefighters’ union finally obtained the emails last week through an open records request — just ahead of a planned city council meeting on the issue.

“The city saw this as an opportunity to get a consent decree,” Nicks told TheDCNF.

Under a consent decree, the Department of Justice could force Austin Fire to undertake certain steps to increase the number of minority firefighters. During a four-hour meeting last week, the DOJ indicated it would pay 100 black and Hispanic applicants who scored between a 60 and 70 on the 2012 exam, said Nicks.

Thirty black and Hispanic “priority hires” would also be given back pay or jobs in future fire cadet classes, despite the fact that the fire department hired only 100 firefighters in total from the 2012 testing cohort.

“This seems to be another overreach,” says Nicks, who maintains that avoiding a DOJ consent decree would save the city over a million dollars.

The Justice Department opened an investigation into Austin fire’s hiring practices last April after an African-American applicant filed a complaint after he failed to pass the first phase of the written portion of the 2012 cadet test.

“The City is engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics with respect to the hiring of fire cadets,” read a Sept. 26, 2013 letter sent by Jocelyn Samuels, the assistant attorney general of the civil rights division, to an Austin city attorney.

In the letter, Samuels maintained that both the 2012 and 2013 tests adversely impacted black and Hispanic fire candidates.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers are prohibited from engaging in not only intentional discrimination but also employment actions that are “fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.”

Nicks said that the DOJ hopes to implement a consent decree that will last between two and four years. The measure will strip the fire cadet exam of three cognitive components — spatial relations, mechanical aptitude, and math — which Nicks says are very important in firefighting.

Nicks and his members — 92 percent of them — have supported maintaining testing standards.

“The concern that Austin’s firefighters have in reviewing the proposed consent decree terms is to guard against implementation of a system that seeks to achieve diversity without ensuring that the hiring process used validly predicts which candidates have the skills necessary to become highly qualified firefighters,” said Nicks in a statement on the Austin Firefighter Association website.

Nicks and the fire union were able to push back last week’s city council meeting which had the consent decree on the agenda. A new meeting is scheduled for Feb. 27. The city cannot hire new firefighters until the matter has been resolved.

A spokeswoman for the Austin Fire Department said that fire officials are not currently making statements to the press.

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