Smoke and Mirrors

AFTER 25 YEARS under a federal court order to integrate its ranks, you'd think the Minneapolis Fire Department would learn how to diversify its hiring. But on Monday, MFD hiring officials will once again stand trial on charges that they used a biased psychological test last fall to fire seven minority cadets. Among other problems, the test may have violated the court order by probing cadets' arrest records.

City attorneys acknowledge asking prospective firefighters about arrests for a decade, but say it's only to assess their honesty. Last February, Judge Robert Renner dismissed the city's logic. "Regardless of the city's reason for asking this question," he wrote in a preliminary opinion on the case, "it clearly violates the consent decree." In 1991, Renner presided over a case in which the city agreed to pay $50,000 to minority MFD applicants as a penalty for a discriminatory oral interview process. The original 1972 court order barred the city from asking about recruits' arrest records because they don't prove an applicant committed a crime, and nonwhite applicants are much more likely to be arrested than whites.

Assistant City Attorney Jim Moore says the city will argue that the court order applies only to new applicants, not to those already in the cadet training program. The city-appointed psychologists are also expected to testify that arrest records are an integral part of their evaluation. Finally, city officials claim that Legal Aid Services attorney Rick Macpherson, who was appointed to monitor compliance with the court order, waived his right to screen the test when negotiating the terms of admission for last fall's cadet class. Macpherson says he agreed to the terms but warned the MFD that it was responsible for any violations of the court order.

Meanwhile, the Firefighters Advisory Steering Committee, appointed in 1979 to monitor compliance with the court order, opposed the arrangement. "We knew the cadet process was a sham," says Ron Edwards, chair of the advisory committee. "[MFD Chief] Tom Dickinson was needlessly inciting fear by claiming that gang members had infiltrated the department without being able to substantiate or sustain those allegations." Dickinson has apologized for the remark, but not for requesting that police be on hand for protection when he personally fired the cadets last year, and, according to some of the cadets, requiring that they be restrained as they were fired.

The cadets filed an EEO complaint with Minneapolis Affirmative Action Office Director Larry Blackwell, who quickly concluded that there was enough cause to ask that they be reinstated. Dickinson refused, and later questioned Blackwell's objectivity. The City Council then asked the city's Human Resources Department to join the investigation and to put the fired cadets on paid leave pending the outcome of the suit. But Blackwell says Human Resources' Ann Eilbracht, both a defendant in the suit and one of those assigned to investigate it, saw the probe's purpose as "damage control." Eilbracht turned the investigation over to two outside consultants.

Two days before the consultants' report was due, the council conducted Dickinson's performance evaluation. At the time, Eilbracht said the report would find no discrimination, and the chief emerged from the council review unscathed. But in fact, the consultants' report found "prima facie evidence that the [cadet] selection process may be operating in a discriminatory manner," adding that there was no communication or criteria established that would define a psychologically fit cadet. This lack of definition is precisely why the original court order stipulated that the tests be checked for bias.

The messier aspects of the consultants' report escaped the notice of the spin doctors in the mayor's office. Earlier this month, a mayoral handout quoted Sayles Belton as saying that the "fair" and "independent" "report by a consultant found no evidence of discriminatory treatment in the Fire Cadet program." Never mind that there were actually two versions of the report for awhile: The second version was appended by Eilbracht, including a recommendation that the city institute pre-employment criminal background checks. Under the 1972 court order, applicants can't be rejected for felony convictions that are five or more years old, or misdemeanors that are more than two years old. Ironically, criminal background checks would not have barred many, if any, of the fired cadets.

Meanwhile, the meter is running. So far, consultants have cost nearly $100,000, not to mention the seven salaries being paid to the "fired but now on leave" firefighters. If the city loses the upcoming trial, fees for the plaintiffs' private attorneys could send the public tab appreciably higher, not counting damages Renner could impose. The psychological damages of 25 years of inaction are more difficult to quantify.

 
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