Snuffed Out

IN A REMARKABLE display of whitewash journalism, the Star Tribune all but awarded Minneapolis fire chief Tom Dickinson a gold watch in its front-page story last week regarding Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's decision not to reappoint Dickinson to another term. The chief's 14-year tenure has been marked by his department's inability to satisfy a 26-year-old federal court order to integrate its ranks. Indeed, under Dickinson's watch, the MFD has been cited for being in contempt of the court order on numerous occasions.

In the chief's most recent four-year term, for example, Minneapolis taxpayers were put on the hook for more than $1 million in penalties and attorney's fees because of a racially biased promotion test implemented by the chief. Numerous civil lawsuits are still pending as a result of the improper firing of seven minority fire cadets in 1996. Meanwhile, until the MFD comes up with a way to satisfy the court that it is properly recruiting minority candidates to the department, a hiring freeze has left the MFD short-staffed and forced to rely on thousands of hours of expensive overtime pay.

These salient facts are either inferred, buried, or ignored in the Strib story. A cursory read of the piece would lead one to believe the chief is the victim here. The opening three paragraphs detail how a hidebound bureaucracy has prevented Dickinson from firing a longtime union official who allegedly has been abusing his sick leave. A prominent bar graph shows how the number of minority firefighters has risen over the past 16 years and Sayles Belton is cited as praising the chief for "bringing professionalism and racial diversity to the Fire Department," as if minority hires had been prompted by a sense of fairness rather than contempt-of-court citations and whopper fines.

Strib reporter Kevin Diaz also lets Dickinson offer up flimsy rationalizations for his removal without providing any context or rebuttal. For instance, the chief defends his firing of the minority cadets by noting that "I had two psychologists saying they should not be firefighters." He and Diaz conveniently neglect to mention that the psychologists were given access to the cadets' arrest records without knowing whether they had subsequently been convicted or even charged with an offense. As if this clear violation of the terms of the court order was not enough to bias the psychologists, Dickinson had confided his unsubstantiated belief that gang members had infiltrated the cadet class, a colossal indiscretion that earned the chief a stern rebuke from the judge when he issued his contempt ruling.

Ultimately, Diaz and Dickinson spin the chief's downfall as that of a well-meaning administrator who came up through the ranks being outmaneuvered by machinations within the department and at City Hall. "There's politics in everything," Dickinson laments. But the chief himself is nothing if not a political animal; otherwise he would have been dumped a long time ago. (As the Strib's City Hall beat reporter, Diaz should be well aware of this.) In a September 1995 letter to Sayles Belton written on MFD stationary, Dickinson says of three firefighters' union officials, "This is the same group that deceived you on their endorsement for did ask me to remind you if you ever forgot that they were never to be trusted again."

In exchange for Dickinson's staunch political support, the mayor refused to criticize or discipline the chief despite his department's expensively discriminatory hiring practices and the open revolt and low morale that were increasingly apparent among administrators and rank-and-file members alike within the MFD. Facing re-election, Sayles Belton correctly surmised that the Strib's fawning campaign coverage and her race-baiting opponent wouldn't exploit the issue enough to hurt her politically. But with the departure of Dickinson's North Side City Council allies Walt Dziedzic and Alice Rainville, the chief's chances of being approved for another term were slim at best, and as far back as last September it was common knowledge around City Hall that Dickinson would be demoted to battalion chief, a comfy sinecure that pays $65-70,000 per year and will help pad an already hefty pension for the 37-year MFD veteran. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the MFD continues to be the ultimate good old boys network, or whether the mayor will belatedly reform a department that has been willfully neglected for too long.

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