New York City has been trying to recruit blacks and other minorities into its fire and police departments since the 1960s, with little success. They dropped the requirements, sent recruiting vans visiting the ’hood and the barrio, offered free classes to prepare hopeful minority recruits for the entrance exam — and have even provided the answers to them — but the departments remain predominantly lily white.
Now Schenectady wants to lower the entrance standards to “achieve an agreed-upon minority hiring goal.” Goals are great, but let’s not destroy the system in the process.
There are several reasons for the under-representation of minorities in the departments, and none of them have to do with institutional discrimination based upon their ethnicity. It has more to do with a lack of desire to be a firefighter or cop.
Firemen are seen as the wrecking crews and police are considered an invading force that only comes to minority neighborhoods to trash their homes and arrest their children. Joining these departments, for many minority residents, is seen as a betrayal.
Getting a job as a fireman or cop is not like going to work for Wal-Mart. The Civil Service selection process takes months (or years) from application to entrance exam to physical, medical and psychological exams, to in-depth background check, verification of qualifications and FBI check, before being cleared for appointment. Even then, the appointment depends upon the politicians for funding, so by the time they actually get around to being hired, too many applicants have moved on.
Using recruiters to visit the schools sounds wonderful, but without experience and exposure to other minorities in these jobs, the children grow up with a lack of desire to work in careers that require running into burning buildings or enforcing our laws at gunpoint. The recruiters bring word of the wonderful opportunities these jobs offer, but potential recruits have to weigh those benefits against the realities — the long wait, having to meet standards and jump through hoops to join organizations they just don’t like.
The answer is not to lower the bar, but to change the culture of the jobs to make them more desirable to the people they hope to hire.
For the fire department: Institute outreach programs that visit schools and neighborhoods after every notable fire to explain why it was necessary to break windows and cut holes in roofs to vent toxic smoke and allow the heat to escape so it didn’t spread the flames to the rest of the building. People see one room on fire, and every window in the house is broken and there are holes in the roof when the fire department leaves.
For police departments: After decades of targeting minority communities for drugs, morals violations and, now, gangs and their activities, the image of the police for many is that of oppressors. Getting rid of the “them vs. us” mentality and patrolling the streets — on foot — will be a heck of a way to start.
(It’s called “Park, Walk & Talk” in other departments.)
Get attention early
If minorities are wanted in these organizations, it is necessary to inculcate the desire to serve society from as early in their lives as possible. This can be done with intensive interaction between the citizenry and their public servants. Weekly neighborhood drills by the fire and police departments to introduce their equipment and tactics to the young and a return to the neighborhood foot patrols for law enforcement, would go far to bring recruits in the future. Knowing who lives in the neighborhood and what’s going on will improve the safety and security of the residents and put the bite on drug and gang activity as well.
Encourage Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Explorer programs sponsored by every fire and police unit, to prepare them to work for the city. Organize neighborhood fire and police department skills contests in the schools that will culminate in a fair and final round of competitions during the summer. Visit church and local fairs and block parties.
And if you’re not going to do it the right way, drop the pretense of needing the minorities to make the jobs better, especially if you’re going to continue using them as scapegoats and the rationale for annual requests to increase the departments’ budgets. It’ll be a waste of the taxpayers’ money and everyone’s time.
Rick Otto lives in Berne and is a retired borough supervisor for the Fire Department of New York City. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.