The Federal Judge overseeing the implementation of a 2014 race-discrimination settlement with a fraternal organization for black Fire Department employees used an Oct. 8 hearing to blast the city for not immediately informing him about racist behavior by nine firefighters and the penalties that were imposed by the department.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis told Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro and City Corporation Counsel Georgia Pestana, whom he had summoned, that he was “deeply troubled” that he belatedly learned about the discipline cases from an Oct. 1 New York Times story that reported firefighters “were subject to pervasive harassment motivated by race and gender.”
The article revealed that nine white Firefighters were "quietly" suspended without pay for sharing racist messages and memes mocking George Floyd’s "dying moments" when he was murdered by a white Minneapolis cop on Memorial Day last year.
Humor in 'Shooting Black Kids'
The article said that in one meme shared by the firefighters, "a Sesame Street character refuses a salary when becoming a police officer, because 'being able to legally shoot black children is payment enough.'"
“Why am I learning [about], as the Fire Department spokesman described it, 'the most severe discipline ever handed down in the history of the department' in a newspaper?” Judge Garaufis asked. “Why didn’t the city tell the Court Monitor or this Court about the outcomes? Why didn’t the department issue an internal email or include in the firehouse roll calls an announcement explaining the disciplinary actions?”
He continued, “If people don’t know how they are expected to behave in order to be compliant with the rules, you really can’t blame them from going on behaving the way they do even though they should know better.”
The Times reported that the most-serious offender received a six-month suspension and had to agree to resign at its conclusion to avoid being fired.
A department spokesman said another firefighter was given a 45-day ban without pay, another a 30-day penalty, and two others received 20-day unpaid suspensions. His email noted that at least one supervisor was among those sanctioned.
Wants Answers Dec. 16
Judge Garaufis instructed Mark S. Cohen, the court-appointed Monitor, to convene the parties in the case to address the issues he raised from the bench.
The next court conference is scheduled for Dec. 16.
While bitingly critical of the city’s failure to disclose its internal discipline for racist conduct, the Judge called Mr. Nigro “a distinguished man of principle” who had tried to “advance the solutions to the case.”
When the Fire Commissioner spoke, he offered no explanation for the FDNY’s failure to disclose the discipline but pledged to ensure that the Judge “got those answers as soon as possible.”
“I can hear the frustration, the anger in your voice when you spoke,” he told Mr. Garaufis. “Sometimes I feel equally frustrated…Diversity is one thing, inclusion is another. Inclusion, I find to be the more-difficult piece of this operation. The fact that it’s taken this long is almost unexplainable and undefendable.”
'I Share His Concerns'
After the hearing, Mr. Nigro was asked by reporters if he “felt called on the carpet” by Judge Garaufis.
“No, I thought those were areas of mutual concern for the judge, for the monitor, the Fire Department and personally for myself,” Mr. Nigro told reporters, pledging to "work even harder at making this department more inclusive.”
When asked by reporters why the FDNY had not disclosed the internal discipline prior to the Times article, Mr. Nigro cited a past legal conflict in disclosing suspension details, but “going forward we certainly will.”
“We have nothing to hide in these cases, and it is actually important to us to get that out and that there will be discipline for folks who violate our rules,” he said.
According to two sources at the FDNY, the regulation he referred to was Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law prohibiting the release of internal discipline records of cops and firefighters. That law has been repealed.
'Message Not Getting Out'
Capt. Dellon Morgan, the Vulcan Society president, said in an Oct. 12 phone interview, “I think it was necessary for it to come out,” regarding the racist conduct and the penalties becoming public. “With all the energy being displayed on television and on the 8th floor [of FDNY Headquarters], the message is still not getting down to the toes of the Fire Department, where all the problems are coming from. So, I think the 8th floor understands there is that disconnect, and the Judge brought that out.”
After the hearing, Mr. Nigro conceded that despite his past emphasis on diversity and inclusion, more needed to be done.
“I think folks have been in uniform a long time. They sometimes become complacent to this, and they have other tasks to keep this city safe, and they feel maybe it is not their job. But it is certainly all of our jobs to do the right thing,” he told reporters.
“We can have a department that has become more diverse, and it has—this department is now three times as diverse as it was when I started—but if the people that are brought in don’t feel welcome—and I think the Judge said it right—how do we get more people to decide to make the Fire Department a career?” the Fire Commissioner said.
Cold Shoulder Chills Spirit
According to the Fire Department, 13.4 percent of firefighters are Latino, 8.2 percent are black, and 2 percent are Asian. While the firefighting force is still 75 percent white/male, that number was 93 percent during the 1990s.
Mr. Morgan said the Vulcan Society was concerned not just with recruiting but retaining firefighters of color who have made it into a firehouse.
“The job that firefighters do requires we devalue our own life to save somebody else’s life, and to be wired like that takes something special,” he said. “But you can break somebody’s spirit early in their career when you are already coming into a place where you are a minority, and then you find out you are not welcome. Nobody wants to work in a high-risk job where you can get killed and there’s a real chance, because of your race, you’ll get picked on by the same people you need to rely on.”
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