Denver Fire Department: Does It Have a Diversity Problem?

Sam Levin, Westword (Denver), October 23, 2012

Out of 32 assistant chiefs currently working in the Denver Fire Department, one is black, four are Hispanic and there are no females. Of 62 captains below them, six are black, and three of those are eligible to retire in coming years. The consequence of these numbers according to some members? As individuals move up in the ranks, the department is on track to have a striking lack of diversity in its top leadership.

One white official has labeled this problem “institutional racism” in an internal letter—though the chief of the department maintains that he and the city are committed to diversity in recruitment and promotions.

The Colorado Black Professional Firefighters, a chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, based in Denver, met last Thursday with the Denver Fire Department’s official recruiter and other employee organizations to discuss ways that the recruitment process can “bolster inclusivity.” The meeting, mentioned to us by Tony Martin, president of the Colorado Black Professional Firefighters, comes on the heels of growing concerns that the department has set itself up for a period lacking in diversity when it comes supervisory slots.

He and others believe that given the current demographics of captains and assistant chiefs, the top positions will be filled primarily by white males for many years to come—a problem that to some seems unavoidable at present.


Out of roughly 900 members in the department, 52 are black, according to a DFD spokesman, who confirms the accuracy of more specific breakdowns provided to us by Martin. Below Eric Tade, the chief of the department, who is white, there are six division chiefs—two who are Hispanic males, one female and three white males. Below that group are the 32 all-male assistant chiefs, with four Hispanics and one African American. And below that are the 62 captains, of which only six are black.

From 2002 to 2006, only 1 percent of candidates hired by the department were African American and 13.7 percent were Hispanic, according to the DFD. From 2007 to 2012, 10.9 percent hired were African American and 21.2 percent Hispanic. The improvements in recent years, department officials say, come from 2006 recommendations from a diversity task force. Hiring is officially conducted by the city’s Civil Service Commission.


This issue was first brought to our attention by a letter from Rex King, a white assistant chief within the department, who wrote about his concerns with the growing problem of “institutional racism.” Through an Open Records request, the city recently sent us the 2009 letter from King to the chief and deputy chief of the department at the time. The complete letter is on view below, but here’s an excerpt:

The Department is in the midst of crisis which will require immediate attention by the current administration. As you are very aware, nine and perhaps more Assistant Chiefs will be retiring in the next eighteen months. Included in this demographic group are: seventy-five percent of the African American chiefs on the job and twenty percent of the Hispanic chiefs. These chiefs will be replaced by one hundred percent Caucasians; chiefs who will be in place for the next two decades. The Assistant Chiefs being replaced make up thirty percent of Assistant Chief’s rank.

Denver’s Civil Service Commission and Fire Department are not engaging in unfair practices. However, the unattended consequence of the current situation is institutional racism. In the last Department-wide management training, command officers were instructed: “if it is predictable it is preventable.” As a Department and City, we don’t even have to predict the results of inaction; we already know the outcome. {snip}


Martin argues that the recruitment process and associated exams are in need of serious reform and have contributed to the lack of diversity in the department.

“We need to start looking at a whole candidate and not just . . . an arbitrary score,” Martin tells us. “It’s having an adverse impact and it’s discriminatory.”

He argues that the exams and process of recruiting in general have favored non-minority hirings and promotions.

The fire department disputes allegations that recruitment has been discriminatory. In an e-mail to us, Chief Tade writes:

The exam process is conducted by the Civil Service Commission who ensures the exam process has no adverse impact. The current hiring test not only tests for educational abilities, but also emotional outlook and interpersonal skills. The exam process is always being evaluated and modified when improvement areas are identified. We have spent the last year meeting with employee groups, Civil Service, the Manager of Safety, and recruiters to enhance the recruitment process and limit barriers to entry onto the Department with an overall goal of increasing minority representation within the Department.


Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.