BOSTON CAN’T SAY it wasn’t warned about the worrisome diversity gap in the Boston Fire Department. When a court struck down the department’s old hiring system in 2003, ending a consent decree that had enforced rough racial equity, a disappointed civil rights advocate put the city on notice: “In 20 years, if no other mechanism is put in place, the department is going to go back to what it was in the ’80s — it’ll be 90 percent white.”
One of the most distressing takeaways from the NAACP’s scathing report card on Mayor Walsh’s first four years is that the backsliding predicted back then has actually happened. Boston is retreating on diversity in the fire department, with a declining number of black firefighters, and paltry numbers of Latino and Asian firefighters.
The number of black firefighters has fallen 28 percent since 2000, the NAACP found. Out of about 1,600 employees in the fire department, only 315 are black. According to the city’s diversity dashboard, 85 percent of new firefighters hired during Walsh’s administration have been white. Meanwhile, the city itself has become more racially diverse, making the disparities in the fire department ever starker.
It’s not as if the Walsh administration has done nothing: Commissioner Joseph Finn hired the department’s first diversity officer and has teamed up with Action for Boston Community Development to create a teen academy to interest high schoolers in firefighting. The city is also making use of an optional language preference for Spanish and Haitian Creole speakers, a welcome shift that should yield greater language diversity.
But the hiring system itself needs reform, and Walsh could use his clout on Beacon Hill to bring state civil service rules in line with the city’s needs. The current system is not fair to qualified residents who are boxed out of jobs. And if that’s not reason enough, the mayor should consider the likely consequence: If the city doesn’t turn its hiring numbers around fast, another discrimination lawsuit could be coming.
Under the existing rules, veterans get such a huge boost that it’s virtually impossible to become a Boston firefighter without serving in the military first. That rule enjoys broad political support. There are ways to change the rules while maintaining some veterans preference, but it will take leadership by Walsh to shepherd potentially controversial proposals through Beacon Hill.
One reform — tightening residency requirements from one year to three years — has been banging around the City Council for the last few years. That adjustment would make it harder for out-of-town vets to establish a Boston residence and then leapfrog to the front of the line. Rumors abound of applicants establishing “mattress” addresses in Boston, a ruse that would be harder to pull off if the city required three years of residency.
Another solution would be to establish a cadet program for aspiring firefighters, like the Police Department’s. City councilor Andrea Campbell has been looking into a cadet program with now-retired councilor Bill Linehan, but creating one would also require the Legislature’s approval, and the idea has sparked protests from veterans groups, who are worried it would dilute the veterans preference. In an interview, Campbell lauded veterans, but said, “I don’t think that should be the only way to be a firefighter in the City of Boston.”
Civil rights groups have hinted that if the department’s numbers don’t improve, they might resort to a lawsuit. That could be a costly and disruptive fight that the mayor should try to avoid. Walsh didn’t create the diversity problem in the fire department, but if he’s reelected, he needs to place a greater emphasis on solving it.