Judge Nicholas Garaufis questioned why the department did not trumpet the suspensions as a way of proving it has shed a racist past and attracting applicants of color.
Why not disclose that “there are consequences for sending racist messages in the FDNY?” he asked. “No amount of advertising is going to encourage young minority candidates to take the test if the messaging is negative and demonstrates to firefighter candidates that the fire department is not welcoming to minorities.”
Garaufis said he learned of the discipline by reading about it in the New York Times, despite the department being under federal monitorship for more than a decade to diversify its ranks.
“We’re not going to get the candidates we should have from the minority community if the minority community does not believe the Fire Department is not a welcoming community,” Garaufis said.
In the messages and memes last April, white firefighters mocked George Floyd’s dying moments with Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, the Times reported.
It said they also exchanged other racist messages, including one about the use of fire hoses on protesters.
The Justice Department, which sued the FDNY in 2007 over discriminatory hiring practices, said the failure to publicly disclose the suspensions showed the work to make the department more inclusive and accepting has not been sufficient.
“The work environment is still a hostile one for firefighters of color,” said Patricia Stasco, with the DOJ.
All parities acknowledged the ample progress the FDNY has made to overcome what the court has called “intentional discrimination” against Black candidates, but Nigro said he was “equally frustrated” change hasn’t happened fast enough.
“Some of the mechanics have been put in place,” he said. “Now the cultural change needs to take place, and it’s not easy…Diversity is one thing, inclusion is another.”
The federal monitor credited Nigro with making “meaningful progress” in recruitment, the collection of data, and the development of manuals to inform conduct — but he also said, “There is work that needs to be done and done at a much faster pace.”
The monitor, Mark Cohen, said progress has come in the civilian-led departments but has lagged in the firehouses, where he said leadership needs to be “driving the message there is zero tolerance” for the kind of racist messages that led to the suspensions.
The FDNY said the firefighters shared racist messages and memes to a group chat.
In one firehouse, there was toilet paper printed with an image of former President Barack Obama, Garaufis said.
After 14 years of monitoring, the judge said he wanted it to end, but “with all the questions, it’s hard to see when that will be.”
The firefighters were suspended for periods ranging from a few days to six months, and at least one of the firefighters is set to leave the department after his suspension concludes.
It is the most severe discipline ever handed down in the history of the department.
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