The U.S. Justice Departmenthas opened an investigation of possible racial discrimination in hiring at the Baltimore County police and fire departments, according to correspondence between the agency and the county.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division recently sent a two-page letter asking the county for "more information regarding the hiring of African Americans." Specifically, the agency asked about entry-level hiring at the two departments to help it "fully evaluate whether or not the County is in violation."

The letter, headed "Investigation into the Employment Practices of Baltimore County, MD," mentions a section of the Civil Rights Act barring discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnicity.

The Department of Justice has a policy of not confirming investigations, and offered no comment on the letter. County officials declined to comment on the investigation, but County Executive Kevin Kamenetz acknowledged receiving the federal notice in a 10-page letter he sent last week to U.S. Rep.Elijah E. Cummings detailing the county's efforts to hire and promote minorities.

The Justice Department letter, dated Jan. 30, marks the third time since the late 1970s that the agency has investigated discrimination in county hiring. It comes as the Justice Department is also looking into claims by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission that the county repeatedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 1998, the Justice Department opened an investigation of racial discrimination in the fire department a year after a black firefighter found a noose hanging with his work gear. In 1979 and 1980, the county settled a suit filed by the Justice Department, agreeing to an array of goals for hiring women and minorities in all departments, including police and fire.

In his letter to Cummings, Kamenetz detailed long-range police and fire department goals and said the county had been making progress. He emphasized that promoting diversity in the two agencies "has been a long-standing priority" for his and previous administrations.

While he acknowledged that women and minorities have been "underrepresented" in the fire department and in some sections of the police department, he also noted some successes. Since 2007, he said, the growing police department has gained 13 percent more minorities and less than a half of one percent more white members.

Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, met recently with leaders of organizations of African-American members of both the police and fire departments, who told him their complaints about minority hiring, according to the correspondence obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

"We're very much underrepresented in this department at every level," Fire Specialist Irvin Lewis, president of the Guardian Knights organization and a 29-year county firefighter, said on Tuesday. He praised his department's work fighting fires, but he said the agency has not done as well bringing in African-American members.

"It appears that in the past, diversity was not a priority in the fire department," said Lewis, adding that he was more optimistic that something would be done under the new administration. He said Cummings "appeared to be very interested in hearing about the lack of minorities in the fire department."

After his meeting with Lewis and police Sgt. Orlando Lilly of the Blue Guardians, Cummings wrote to the county in January with questions about the police and fire departments' minority hiring efforts. A copy of Cummings' letter was not available on Tuesday, and the congressman could not be reached for comment, but Kamenetz included some of the questions about planning and progress in his response.

Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for the county police and fire departments, said because there have been so many retirements from both agencies recently in response to a county buyout program, up-to-date numbers on the percentage of minorities in each department could not be made available Tuesday.

Lewis estimated that roughly 10 percent of about 1,000 professional firefighters — not including volunteers — are African-Americans. According to the 2010 census, African-Americans make up 26 percent of the county's population.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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