A Firewall of Silence

THE MINNEAPOLIS FIRE Department is now in its 25th year under a standing federal court order to integrate its membership; last Wednesday, an angry contingent led by members of the American Indian Firefighters' Association marked the anniversary by going to the offices of Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and MFD Chief Tom Dickinson to protest the city's lack of commitment to hiring Native Americans and ensuring that people who claim to be Native American are properly certified.

This latest wave of frustration was precipitated by a breakdown of the incoming firefighter class that shows only one of the eight Native Americans who passed the physical test being hired by the department, as opposed to nine of 43 eligible white candidates. Leonard Thompson and Mike Beaulieu of the AIFA also charged that the city is not certifying the credentials of Native American candidates, creating the potential for fraudulent claims by white applicants. Evidence that this may have occurred in past recruiting classes has prompted a continuing investigation by the Minnesota Human Rights Commission.

The city official assigned to certify the credentials of Native American applicants is American Indian Community Advocate Valerie Sheehan. Thompson, Beaulieu, and Ron Edwards, the chair of the committee charged with monitoring progress on the court order, all claim that in a December meeting Sheehan said she had not certified the latest class of candidates. Sheehan says that "is totally inaccurate," adding that she checked the credentials of 17 applicants and found eight with adequate credentials to be certified. "I was very disappointed that some of those eight didn't show up for the tests," she says. Yet eight Native Americans are listed in MFD records as having passed the physical exam; asked how that could be the case if some of the individuals she certified didn't even show up for testing, she replies, "I don't know."

That sort of discrepancy adds fuel to suspicions that some white candidates are misidentifying themselves as Native Americans to get a leg up. For years, the firefighters' steering committee led by Edwards has asked for the names of all Native candidates to ensure that certification is actually taking place. City officials maintain that the state's data privacy law prohibits them from releasing that information, but the federal court order specifically stipulates that the steering committee be given the names and race of candidates in the process. The city's stonewalling has brought the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis into the matter; on Friday, attorney Rick Macpherson sent a letter to Sayles Belton asking that he and the steering committee be granted access to the candidate lists in compliance with the court order.

In 1989, the city was fined $50,000 for failing to validate its good faith effort in hiring minorities for the Fire Department. Edwards sees the same potential in the present situation. Despite the fines, the Human Rights investigation, the Legal Aid intervention, and the ongoing onus of the court order, he says, "I have yet to see any list that would prove the city is properly certifying these candidates."

 
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