Minority Numbers Drop On City Payroll

Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 12, 2007

Pittsburgh’s public safety work force is getting less racially diverse, despite decades of effort to make its bureaus look more like the population they serve.

Whereas 10 years ago minorities held one-quarter of Police Bureau jobs, or one in four, they now have one in five. Just five of the city’s 122 police recruits and second- and third-year officers are African American, and none come from other minority groups.

The Fire Bureau is 90 percent white, and recruits this year and last have been 91 percent white.

The city’s population, from which police and firefighters are drawn, is around 67 percent white.

The perennial issue has re-emerged as part of the mayor’s race. At forums, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and challenger city Councilman William Peduto have been asked for their plans.

Speaking after a police awards ceremony late last month, Mr. Ravenstahl said he recognized the problem.

“After the [civil service] tests are given, it is a very structured procedure from there, and the individuals are chosen as they appear on the list and how they qualify in terms of their examination,” he said.

“So we’ll look at ways, for example, that we can perhaps do the testing differently, or look at ways to provide opportunity. Because it is alarming, for example, when you have fire classes of 30 or 40 individuals and only one or two are minorities.”

“Having a graduating class [of new firefighters] this past fall in which one out of 36 graduates is a minority is an embarrassment,” said Mr. Peduto.

His five-point plan to improve diversity includes year-round recruiting, reaching out to churches and community groups, and sending police and firefighters into high schools and colleges. He also would alter a rule under which police recruits need 60 college credits by giving equal weight to military service.

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A few decades ago. Pittsburgh was the model to which others looked.

In 1975, the solution to perceived unfairness in Police Bureau hiring was the Weber consent order, named after U.S. District Judge Gerald Weber. He ordered the bureau to hire one black woman, one black man and one white woman for every white man it brought on.

That order was overturned in court in 1991, in favor of a system based on background checks, physical tests, a psychological review and a written exam.

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Ms. Trant said the dearth of minority applicants persists despite the fact that the city has five analysts and one employment manager who spend “a great deal of time focusing on diversity in recruitment.”

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The department got City Council approval last year to spend $56,500 to evaluate its employment testing, and Ms. Trant said that process did not show any racial bias.

The Black Political Empowerment Project approached the mayor last month, pushing “the need to have a breakthrough in the hiring of minorities to the police and fire bureaus,” said that group’s chairman, Tim Stevens.

“Maybe there needs to be a special summit meeting between the city officials and community leaders,” he said, “to take a fresh look at how we impact those numbers.”

At stake is the relationship between the police and minority communities, he said.

“When there’s an incident, and almost everyone who comes pouring into a black neighborhood is white, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “When you flip the picture, I think white people will understand how black people feel when what looks like a white occupation force pours into the Hill or Homewood.”

A return to the Weber order may be needed, he said.

Union heads prefer a broad effort to lure more applicants.

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“Should an aggressive [recruitment drive] be given to one group? Absolutely not,” said International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 President Joe King. “I think pre-training should be given to everyone,” starting with high school students that might be wooed to public safety jobs.

The city’s firefighter hiring practices have never been challenged for racial bias, he said.

Nonetheless, his rank and file is whitening from the bottom. Of the 152 least senior firefighters, just seven are black and three are Hispanic, making that group 93 percent white.

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said the city should reconsider the extra points given to applicants who are military veterans, which she said tends to help whites.

“Maybe we don’t need that anymore,” she said, since the preference was created to help people who were drafted to get back into the work force. “We don’t want to not give veterans a chance. But we also have to remember that those veterans are veterans by choice now.”

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