Burning Down the House

Racial strife ignites a civil war in the Cleveland Fire Department.

Mean Girls
Bruce Williams isn't eager to talk. He's seen whites respond with skepticism and weariness to the frequent cries of discrimination that have long dogged the Cleveland Fire Department. His inclination is to shut up.

But in the face of persistent questions, Williams's anger will eventually get the best of him. That's when the stories begin.

His father, Louis Williams Jr., took up the hose in 1953, among the first wave of African Americans to join the department. It wasn't easy integrating a job that had long been dominated by Irish Catholics. Louis didn't speak of his experiences with his sons; Bruce would only hear the tales secondhand, after his father passed away in 1994. His mother recounted how Louis was once sent to a station short on manpower. When night fell, he was sent home. "They didn't want him to sleep in one of the beds," Bruce says.

By the time Bruce joined the department in 1981, racism was no longer so blatant, but it persisted nonetheless.

"The fire department has a tradition of what they call a prankish nature," says Bruce, a round man who speaks politely but firmly. "There's a certain amount that's done to every rookie, but that seems to go overboard when the rookie's black."

Once, in the dead of winter, he went to put on his boots and found them filled with water. Sometimes co-workers hid his gear. "That makes you look very unprofessional, when you're on the way to an alarm and you don't have your equipment," he says.

Much of this sounds like the practical joking common to any place where men live together, be it frat house or firehouse. Perhaps, suggests a questioner, it had nothing to do with race?

"You tell me if it's hazing when the black guy goes to bed and his sheets are covered with flour, so when he comes out of the bed, he's white-faced?" Bruce asks, his temper flaring. That happened to his brother, Daryl, who joined the department in 1994 and worked in a mostly white West Side station. Daryl retaliated by putting charcoal in the sheets of his tormentor, who then announced over the station's public address system, "One of them niggers did something to my bed."

All of which has left Bruce unable to trust that some white co-workers will observe the covenant sacred to their brotherhood: to be willing to rush into a burning building to save him.

"I've had it said to me before: 'You better hope you don't get in a situation you can't handle, because help might not be there,'" he says.

The department would prefer to project the image of a noble band of brothers risking their lives for public safety. "Nobody has any consideration about what color somebody is when we're performing firefighting duties," says retiring Chief Kevin Garrity.

Yet Daryl McGinnis, the president of the Vanguards, an organization of black and Hispanic firefighters, says the reality is much uglier. "The citizens would be appalled if they knew how their fire department was being run," he says. "Sooner or later, if this is not cured, you're going to have a major event that's going to happen because white and black firefighters don't work together."

It may be one of the few points on which black and white can agree. Adds white Lieutenant Chris Keener: "There's such a division and such animosity because of the way the system works. There's two fire departments."

To understand this emotional climate, one must first understand the department's history. There was no black firefighter on the force until 1943. By 1972, it counted only 53 blacks out of 1,258 members. This wasn't due to a shortage of applicants.

Lloyd Noles says that some of his fondest childhood memories come from hanging out at a neighborhood fire station. So in 1965, after serving in the Air Force, he took the firefighter's test and passed. But the department repeatedly found reasons to rebuff him, "like being told I had a bad heart; being told, 'Your nose is too big, and when you breathe, you breathe the air out of the tanks too quick,'" he says. "There was maybe six or seven times I was rejected, different things that had no real backbone to them."

Fed up, Noles filed a discrimination suit in 1972. The city settled and gave him a job.

If the department had long kept men like Noles out with trumped-up medical excuses, that was about to change. In 1973, a group of blacks and Hispanics filed a class-action suit, claiming that the department's hiring policies were discriminatory. To dispense with the suit, the city agreed to hire minorities in proportion to passing grades on the entrance exam. If 25 percent of those who passed were minorities, one of four hires had to be black or Hispanic. The decision came to be known as "the Headen decree," named for Lamont Headen, the first plaintiff.

Yet the court held no sway over white attitudes. As Frank Szabo, head of a white group called the Concerned American Fire Fighters Association, puts it: "You can't force firefighters to talk to each other, and you can't force firefighters to like each other."

James Gay Jr., a black man, remembers the reception he got when he first joined the department. Colleagues refused to shake his hand, and if he went into the TV room, whites would abruptly leave. He was handed the worst duties -- such as cleaning the undercarriage of the fire engine with kerosene every day -- and given the demeaning nickname "Shine."

In some ways, the Headen decree may have reinforced the animus toward blacks. Firefighting, like police work, has long been a trade passed from father to son. The hiring rules meant that some blacks who scored lower than whites would get jobs first.

"All of a sudden, minorities were getting the jobs that were earmarked for their relatives," says McGinnis. "In other words, 'Our brothers, our cousins, our nephews were supposed to get those jobs.' So there's a great resentment toward us from the start."

That antipathy only increased with subsequent court actions. In 1983, the city signed another consent decree to settle a suit filed by the Vanguards, which alleged discrimination in promotion. The department would promote as many blacks and Hispanics as whites, even if minorities had lower test scores. Among whites, it became known dismissively as "Sign up, show up, move up."

"You had a lot of animosity over those consent-decree promotions," says Szabo. "Some guys couldn't get over it. Some guys it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

If the court cases were designed to equalize the circumstances of the races, they seemed to have an opposite effect on attitudes. "That fans the flames of racism," says Keener. "It does nothing to temper it."

Now, two more court cases are pouring salt on the wound. One, set for trial this summer, alleges that promotions are biased. The other, decided in February, suggests that the department has made little progress in the six decades since it first hired a black man.

Civil service is in Emmett Jordan's blood. While several relatives became police officers, Jordan and two of his brothers chose to pursue firefighting.

"I wanted to do something that made a difference," says Jordan, whose passion isn't restrained by the neck brace he wears after a recent car accident.

Jordan's problems began at the training academy. He was one of 8 blacks among 37 cadets. Whites and blacks ate at separate lunch tables, and they also seemed to train by different rules. Whites got 15-minute breaks between strenuous drills, while blacks had to go straight from dragging a heavy hose to chopping wood, Jordan says.

Blacks also seemed to face harsher discipline. White cadets stayed out drinking with supervisors, who forgave them the next day for coming in late. Blacks, meanwhile, were punished for tardiness with extra exercise, Jordan says.

In protest, black cadets boycotted the graduation ceremony. Jordan would have done the same, except that Lloyd Noles, then an academy instructor, counseled against it. "It wasn't good for people who didn't have the time in and weren't secure in their job," says Noles. "I thought it was best that they just go along with the system."

Jordan swallowed his pride. Yet, soon after being assigned in the late '80s to a mostly white station, he began to hear jokes about "Sambo." He recalls the joke about a black man who asked to borrow a nickel from a white to raise airfare back to Africa. "Here's a quarter," went the punch line; "take four more niggers with you."

Whites were evidently still smarting over the court settlements; blacks were referred to as "welfare firefighters," Jordan says. When he was about to be transferred to Station 36, among a cluster of predominantly black East Side stations, whites said he was going to "Monkey Island."

At Station 36, Jordan no longer heard racist jokes, but he felt discrimination nonetheless. He says the station ran short of necessities like dishwashing soap, toilet paper, and paper towels -- never a problem at white stations.

In 1995, Jordan transferred to a mostly white station in Slavic Village. Several blacks followed. The whites seemed to go out of their way to make life uncomfortable for the newcomers, Jordan says. They locked out BET on the television and kept the thermostat at 55 degrees, telling blacks they needed to "get 'climatized" to cold temperatures.

Both sides eventually settled into an uneasy peace, but that changed in 1998 with the arrival of a lieutenant who seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder. More than one black firefighter heard him claim that he had been sent to "straighten out" the station, and he humiliated blacks at roll call by cursing at them over minor transgressions, such as forgetting to remove an earring, Jordan says.

Others say race had nothing to do with it. "He sometimes comes off a little difficult or tough," Phil Pusateri, a white firefighter, says of the lieutenant. "But he's going to do it to everybody. He would treat me the same way he treated Emmett Jordan or anybody else."

After several clashes between Jordan and the lieutenant, human resources transferred them to separate stations. Jordan was sent to Station 20 in Old Brooklyn. But if he thought his troubles were over, he was wrong. In his first week, Jordan slept through an alarm; disciplinary charges were filed.

Jordan may have been getting his just deserts. He had, after all, broken a rule. Yet not everyone saw it that way.

"I found it unacceptable that somebody is asleep and does not hear the night bell, that no one goes to see whether or not that person has had a heart attack, nobody goes and investigated why that person is not on [the truck]," Assistant Chief Paul Stubbs, a high-ranking black officer, said in a deposition.

Ultimately, charges against Jordan were dropped. He transferred to Station 26 in Kinsman, but conflicts persisted.

Firefighters are supposed to store their equipment in lockers. On a few occasions, Jordan left his out. Colleagues responded by stuffing his gear into a basketball hoop.

According to the city, this was unofficial policy at Station 26. The hoop was jokingly called an "auxiliary locker," used to remind people not to be slobs.

But by now, Jordan was primed to suspect racism. He viewed the ribbing as harassment, especially after his gear was accidentally torn.

"The rule within the fire department is plain and simple: You don't fuck with a guy's turnout gear," Jordan says. "It was after they ripped my gear that I said, 'This shit stops.' I got a wife and kids. I can't be going into a hazardous situation with ripped gear."

Jordan called the captain in charge, who didn't see a problem. The two argued at the station. Afterward, the captain said that he had felt threatened. Jordan was charged with threatening violence in the workplace.

Before the matter was fully resolved, Jordan took medical leave due to stress. Two years ago, he retired on disability.

Yet Jordan was not through with the department. Years earlier, he had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging discrimination. In 2001, the agency ruled in his favor. Jordan then sued the city.

Two months ago, an all-white jury found that Jordan had indeed suffered racial harassment and retaliation for his complaints. The court awarded him $175,000. The city has appealed.

"I never knew stress could create so many problems in a person's life, until I experienced this," Jordan says. "They put their foot on my neck and held their foot on my neck until the day I retired."

Whites saw the verdict differently. Keener, the white lieutenant, remembers Jordan as undisciplined and disrespectful of authority. Seeing Jordan win only reinforced Keener's perception that blacks aren't held to the same standard as whites.

"It adds to the mounting frustration," he says. "When you sit in the morning and read the newspaper, you just shake your head. You feel powerless."

The Vanguards see Jordan's experience as symptomatic of a larger problem. While 21 percent of the department is black, only 13 percent of the officers are.

The disparity affects more than just paychecks. The department maintains a system of informal discipline. Minor transgressions, such as missing a run, are often handled with ribbing, hazing, or extra chores, rather than formal charges.

It may sound like a wise way to run a workplace, but the Vanguards contend it also leads to discrimination. White supervisors let friends of the same race off easy, they argue, while blacks receive formal punishment for the same infractions.

Chief Garrity disagrees. "I would strongly dispute that there's a disparity in discipline," he maintains. "Everything we look at indicates there is not."

Yet records for the past six years contradict Garrity's assertion. Blacks account for 43 percent of disciplinary actions filed since 1998, though they make up only 21 percent of the department.

Garrity declined a follow-up interview. Through a spokesperson in the mayor's office, he argued that the disparity was a result of outside factors, such as someone getting popped for a DUI or drugs while off-duty. There is some truth to that; blacks were more likely to encounter trouble in the outside world, records show. But statistically speaking, that fact still doesn't account for the racial disparity in disciplinary figures.

To compound the problem, black officers also say they have trouble getting white subordinates to follow commands. "Me as an officer, I might tell a [white] guy to do something, and he may blow me off," says Lieutenant Anthony Luke. "They don't like taking orders from a black officer at all. And that's what I experience on a daily basis."

Asked if disobedience might have nothing to do with race, Luke has a ready answer: "I see how they respond to white officers on the fire scene. A white officer gives him an order that's crazy as hell, and he'll do it. I give them an order, and it's like a question."

Whites deny that race interferes with how they do their job, but concede that affirmative action has affected how they view black co-workers. "The people who had to work hard and study to get the job are never going to fully respect those who didn't," says Keener. "That could be construed as racism, but it isn't."

Pusateri believes that problems will subside in 2008, when hiring quotas are terminated. "They'll find the climate [will] improve immediately," he says. "There's probably between 5 and 10 black guys who had to bust their balls to get the job. And you look at them like everybody else."

The lack of black officers forms the crux of a suit likely to be tried this summer. Thirty-five black firefighters allege that promotion tests are biased. Part of their argument rests on statistics, but there is also hard evidence suggesting that the testing is unfair.

In December 2001, while awaiting approval of his disability claim, Emmett Jordan was assigned to department headquarters. In the locker room he found a stack of books and papers, including copies of the answer keys for the 1996 captain and lieutenant exams. His find raised suspicions.

The tests are given by Barrett & Associates in Cuyahoga Falls. The company says that the exams are never released outside the agency. Indeed, the copies Jordan found were marked "strictly confidential." The fact that the answer keys were in circulation, however, "demonstrates that the entire examination process has apparently been compromised," lawyer Dennis Thompson argues.

Through a secretary, testing company president Gerald Barrett declined comment. But a letter sent to the Cleveland Civil Service Commission offers a possible explanation. "What does occur at times is that test-takers themselves attempt to reconstruct portions of the written test after it had been given," he wrote.

If the answer keys Jordan found are forgeries, they're masterful. They include such minutiae as Barrett's copyright registration and instructions on how to fill out the answers.

Barrett's letter acknowledges that the company may have accidentally left the answers behind. Nonetheless, it wouldn't provide anyone an advantage, he claims, because no questions are repeated verbatim on subsequent tests.

But that doesn't put Luke's skepticism to rest.

"I always score in the 90s, which is a good score, but when you have 40 people score above you, it's a different story," he says. "Guys you know you have a little more on the ball than they do, and they're scoring in the top 10 on the test, and you're scoring in the 30s and 40s . . . It's just one of those things where you have a feeling that something ain't right."

Jordan implicates Assistant Chief Brent Collins. He was on duty the day Jordan found the answers. He also owns Don McNea Fire School, which helps people take promotion tests.

The McNea name has been linked to cheating in the past. In 1989, Donald McNea Jr. -- the son of the man who founded the school -- asked to review a captain's promotion test that he had taken with the Parma Police Department. During the review, he was caught reading questions and answers into a tape recorder. He was fired, but won his job back on appeal.

Collins says that the McNea incident isn't relevant; McNea Jr. has no affiliation with the school, which Collins bought from McNea Sr. in 1990. "I've never had any access prior to a test on what the test questions were," Collins says. "I'm an assistant fire chief in Cleveland. Why would I risk not only my career, but my house? Even if I did have the test, I wouldn't give it to anybody."

In their suit, the black firefighters also argue that the tests are culturally biased, leaving blacks to score disparately low. The African American who scored highest on the captain's test, for example, ranked 37th, far out of contention for the job.

This would seem a hard argument to make. While the tests are riddled with firefighting jargon, there's nothing that would appear to give whites an advantage. And in the most recent lieutenant's exam, 7 of the top 20 scorers were minorities. "The minorities in the fire department outperformed the non-minorities," argues Chief Garrity.

Yet it has proved a winning strategy in other cases. Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notified St. Louis that its exams had "a statistically significant adverse impact on African American applicants." The agency warned that the city could face litigation if the problem wasn't corrected. The tests in question, incidentally, were produced by Barrett & Associates.

Each time the courts put race under a microscope, tensions flared. The latest case is no different.

"After we filed the lawsuit, it got kind of crazy," says Luke. "Guys looking at you funny, talking about you. And they were picking and choosing the nonconfrontational guys to say, 'Why'd you sign onto this lawsuit?'"

Some whites were offended by the implications of cheating, others because the suit brought promotions to a screeching halt. Still others are simply tired of hearing about racism.

Frank Szabo speaks for them. The squat, red-haired leader of the white firefighters' group has the kind of sharp, logical mind that would have served him well, had he chosen to become a lawyer. He speaks with careful deliberation -- calling blacks "African Americans" and whites "Caucasians" -- wary of the land mines inherent in conversations about race.

Szabo admits that he's heard the word "nigger" used in firehouses, "but it's very uncommon." He's also not surprised that the department has racial problems. "Cleveland has a huge problem with race, and so you would expect it within the police and the fire departments."

Yet racism isn't the sole province of whites, Szabo argues. He's offended when blacks say that they want to "take back" a firehouse by becoming the majority there. He's also heard African Americans refer to co-workers who get along with whites as "Uncle Toms."

"For whatever prejudice that Caucasian firefighters may have, you see the same amount right back," Szabo says. "There's a general feeling among the Caucasian firefighters that they can't order an African American to do something they don't want to do."

Szabo resents the accusation that whites have a leg up on promotions. "I got promoted off both those tests in question, so yeah, I was patently offended, 'cause I didn't cheat," he says.

He also thinks that the claims of testing bias are hogwash. The problems stem from affirmative action, he argues. "It's no surprise that a [black] guy who ranked 500 [on the hiring test] but got hired is not gonna beat out white guys who ranked high and got hired, when it comes to promotional tests."

Vanguards president McGinnis is sympathetic to whites who are tired of hearing about racism. He laughs while recalling a bumper sticker that read, "If I'd known it was going to be like this, I'd have picked my own damn cotton."

Last week, black Assistant Chief Paul Stubbs was picked to replace the retiring Chief Garrity. He inherits a department self-segregated by race; half the stations are almost entirely black or white.

Keener doubts that a sit-down between the two sides would help. He remembers working at Station 36, which was then mostly black, the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. He cringed as co-workers proclaimed that justice had been served.

"I don't know if being in the same room opens lines of communication, when you're just on totally different viewpoints," he says.

Szabo seems to have lost hope that the department will find harmony. "The opportunity to have any healing has come and passed," he says. "No matter what happens, there's always going to be resentment."

Unfortunately, that may be the only other point on which the races agree.

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