Why the LAFD Is Still Largely White and Male Despite Diversity Efforts

Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2015

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s overhaul of how the city hires new firefighters–launched 16 months ago amid allegations of nepotism and bias–has so far failed to meet his aim of diversifying the LAFD and may require further reforms to succeed, according to interviews with city officials and a Times analysis of government data.

In March of last year, the mayor halted hiring at the Fire Department after a series of Times reports prompted him to condemn the city’s selection methods as “fatally flawed.”

Soon after, Garcetti retooled the process, vowing to introduce more women and minorities to the ranks of an agency that remains primarily white and overwhelmingly male.

But new data released by city officials show that the first four classes of recruits hired under the rebooted system have fallen far short of the numbers needed to achieve Garcetti’s goal of a department that more closely resembles the city it serves.

The lack of progress has heightened calls, from both inside and outside City Hall, to reconsider a centerpiece of the mayor’s program: a blind lottery that now winnows down the massive pool of candidates seeking coveted slots in the city fire service.

Under the Garcetti administration system, 202 recruits have entered the grueling boot camp that is the final step to becoming a city firefighter. Of those, virtually every racial group except white males is underrepresented when compared with the city’s population.

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There also has been little progress toward the decades-old goal of hiring more women at the department. Despite repeated calls from elected leaders for reform, the percentage of female LAFD firefighters remains at slightly less than 3%–the same as in 1995.

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Thirteen women were selected as recruits in the four most recent academy classes, but only two have finished the rigorous boot camp where potential hires must pass drills that simulate a fire and manipulate heavy ladders, hoses and tools. Some remain in training, but several failed to graduate and two recent classes finished with no women remaining.

The department’s rank and file has become more racially diverse in recent decades, but about half of the roughly 3,200 uniformed LAFD employees are white in a city that’s 28% white.

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State law forbids governments from setting hiring quotas for women and minorities, and city officials say programs such as the new magnet school are the best hope of increasing future diversity by enticing more members of underrepresented groups to apply.

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More than 10,000 people applied when the city restarted hiring last year after a hiatus. White men dominated the applicant pool. Only 5% were women, city data show, limiting the likelihood a large number would advance through testing and interviews to be hired.

“We don’t have a recruitment problem,” said Fire Commissioner Jimmie Woods-Gray. “We have a problem recruiting certain types of people.”

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The previous recruit screening process was halted last year after The Times reported that thousands of candidates were excluded because key paperwork wasn’t received by the city in the first minute of a filing period. Many applicants said they had no idea mere seconds would determine which candidates would advance.

Nearly one-third of the 70 recruits eventually selected in that hiring round were related to LAFD firefighters, and the group’s makeup was overwhelmingly white. It included only one woman, who later dropped out.

In response, Garcetti hastily backed changes to the hiring process that included the use of a lottery intended to winnow down the large applicant pool in a more impartial manner.

Because the drawing does not take qualifications into account, candidates with relevant experience or those carefully groomed by the recruitment process have the same chance as anyone else.

“Why are we treating the public sector different from the private sector?” said Capt. Steve Tufts, an LAFD veteran and former union head.

Tufts and others say the city should consider more specific job qualifications to ensure that those best equipped are selected in the lottery. Candidates currently are given no advantage if they have a college degree, previous firefighting experience or certifications such as a paramedic license.

Recruitment efforts targeted at qualified minorities would then stand a better chance of success, he said.

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A new round of adjustments to the screening process may be coming as the city’s Personnel Department prepares to issue a call for applicants next year, said Bruce Whidden, executive director of the city’s civil service commission.

“I think [the lottery] was a little too radical for the city to adopt as a permanent solution. It was almost unprecedented,” Whidden said. “There’s going to be a change.”

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