A Baltimore Fire Department division developed to increase recruitment among black city residents and combat racial tensions within the department's ranks is set to be eliminated in a planned round of budget cutbacks.
The move has caused concerns among African-American leaders in the department. Lloyd Carter, the deputy chief for recruitment, who would be reassigned under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget for the next fiscal year, said he believes his position and the small division built around it should be saved.
"They wanted to improve diversity in the department, and now there's no funding for it?" Carter said in an interview. "The department is no more diverse than it was."
Officials said the Fire Department is currently 32 percent black, a level it has maintained since at least 2011. The city population is 65 percent African-American.
The special division and two positions — created in 2011 as part of efforts to boost minority outreach — would be cut under the plan, and recruitment duties would be absorbed into other divisions, including the training academy, according to department officials.
Fire Chief James S. Clack said he believes the department is doing "better than we ever have with race relations," and he noted that years of budget cutbacks have hampered hiring and efforts to bring more minority firefighters on board. Moreover, under Rawlings-Blake's 10-year financial plan, hiring isn't likely to pick up for several years, he said.
"The fact is we're just not doing a lot of hiring, and we haven't for the past couple of years," Clack said.
The elimination of the two positions would save the department about $245,500 next fiscal year, cutting the department's "community outreach" funding by about one-third, according to the proposed $2.4 billion city budget, which still must be approved by City Council.
Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, an organization that advocates for black firefighters, said he is "strongly against" the plan. The organization had called — unsuccessfully — for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into what it described as "systemic discrimination in hiring, discipline and recruitment" in the department.
"If there is a cutback, it should not be in recruitment, because there is a lack of minorities in the Baltimore City Fire Department," he said. "The only way you will get that is if you have a dedicated crew out there recruiting city residents."
In 2004, the department faced criticism and outrage for hiring an all-white class of recruits. As a result, hiring methods changed and the department promised progress.
But by 2011, allegations of racism persisted, and Rawlings-Blake announced the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League would work with department leaders to increase minority outreach.
Just five months after taking the helm of the recruitment division, Carter sued the department and the city for $3 million, alleging racially discriminatory employment practices. A judge ruled against Carter in the case.
Burris said he doesn't know why Clack and Rawlings-Blake targeted recruitment efforts when negotiations with fire unions on salary levels and shift changes, including a proposal to implement 24-hour shifts, should be their focus.
"I do not see where this would save the city any money," he said of eliminating the recruitment division.
Rawlings-Blake's administration says the recruitment changes have nothing to do with diversity, but rather that the Fire Department plans little new hiring under the mayor's 10-year plan. The plan calls for firefighters to work seven more hours a week in exchange for a 12.5 percent raise. The new schedule would allow the city to cut 156 firefighter positions through attrition, saving the city $60 million over the next 10 years.
Both Carter and Clack said the department has a stack of about 3,000 interested applicants thanks to recruitment efforts in recent years. Of those, Carter said, 80 percent are African American and 30 percent are women.
Still, hiring has been slow, and Carter said he has seen "no improvement" in ensuring racial diversity.
Clack pointed out that the mayor's proposed budget also calls for more training on diversity and inclusion, which, he said, was "a little overdue." Clack said he could not comment further on personnel matters involved in the cutback.
Carter is eligible for retirement — he will have been with the department for 30 years this December — but said he's not sure that's what he wants to do. "Most of the time when people make that decision, they want to make it on their own terms, not be forced to do so," he said.
If he does stay, he may face a demotion.
Carter, whom Burris called a "seasoned veteran" and "one of the most qualified members" of the Fire Department, is still trying to understand his options. Regardless of what happens to him, he said, he hopes departmental diversity isn't relegated to a lower priority.
"The bottom line is the recruitment has to continue if they want to see some improvement in the department," he said.
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