Fire Chief James S. Clack speaks Tuesday. Clack, who has been grappling with allegations of racism in his department, announced that he is promoting two African-American officers to be his top deputies.
Fire Chief James S. Clack speaks Tuesday. Clack, who has been grappling with allegations of racism in his department, announced that he is promoting two African-American officers to be his top deputies. (Algerina Perna / The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Fire Chief James S. Clack, who has been grappling with allegations of racism in his department, announced Tuesday that he is promoting two African-American officers to be his top deputies.

Clack, who is white, said he promoted the two assistant chiefs because of their qualifications, not because of race. But he stressed that the department has bolstered diversity initiatives under his leadership and he denied claims by a black firefighter's group that the department is plagued by institutional racism.

"I'm not naive enough to think that somewhere in this department, someone hasn't done something they shouldn't do," Clack said. "But as far as a culture of racism or a conspiracy to do things that they shouldn't be doing, I just don't see evidence of it. And if I ever do, believe me, I will take action swiftly and there will be serious repercussions."

Baltimore's Fire Department has for years been beset by allegations of racial bias. In April, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would help the department increase outreach to minorities.

But last month, members of the Vulcan Blazers, an organization that advocates for black firefighters, asked U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's office to request the Department of Justice to investigate what the group called systemic racism in the department. The Blazers said the department routinely discriminates against African-Americans in hiring, discipline and promotions, though they did not offer specific examples.

"Senator Cardin takes this very seriously and he has reached out to put the Vulcan Blazers in direct contact with [the Department of Justice] to ensure that all the information that is needed is available so that this is addressed as promptly as possible," said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Clack said he was "surprised" by the Blazers' allegations and that he frequently meets and speaks with the group's leader to address concerns. He rebutted the group's claims of widespread discrimination, and said he would take action if presented specific charges.

"If there's something to grab onto, I will grab onto it like a pit bull," Clack said. "But if I don't have anything to grab onto, it's kind of like swatting in the air. I don't have any way to address the issue."

Henry Burris, the president of the Vulcan Blazers, said department officials should have done more before now. "Rather than addressing these issues, the Fire Department has allowed an increase in the issues and has exacerbated the disparate treatment during the years [Clack] has been here," Burris said.

He said he was not calling on Clack to resign.

"I'm not attacking Chief Clack, I'm attacking the Fire Department and what it's consistently doing," he said.

In announcing the promotions of the two African-American officers, Clack said Tuesday that Jeffrey Segal, a deputy chief, will become assistant chief for operations. Segal will replace Donald Heinbuch, a 41-year veteran of the department who is retiring due in part to health issues, Clack said.

Clack also said that Dickson Henry, a deputy chief, will become assistant chief of planning and administration. That position had been eliminated due to budget cuts a couple years ago, but Clack said that he is resurrecting it.

The fire chief denied rumors that he is contemplating leaving the department.

"I'm very happy the mayor was just re-elected and I hope she keeps me for four more years," Clack said. "I'm not going anywhere. I love Baltimore and I love this department."

After gaining national attention as the Minneapolis fire chief during a major 2007 bridge collapse, Clack was hired by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon in 2008. He arrived at a department that had been thrown into turmoil by the death of a recruit during a training exercise that violated dozens of federal standards.

In the past three years, Clack said, he has strived to improve race relations in the department — an issue in many cities. Many firefighters follow their fathers or grandfathers into the profession — leading to large numbers of white firefighters in once-segregated departments. And departments nationally have found it difficult to recruit minorities.

Last summer, Clack moved Lloyd Carter, the African-American head of the training academy, into a newly created position to boost recruitment efforts, particularly among city residents and African-Americans.

Carter, a past president of the Blazers, is among those who have called for a Justice Department investigation.

In a recent interview, Carter said the department "is just dominated by white males" and that the climate has not improved enough under Clack.

"I think he's doing the best he can, but what he is doing isn't good enough," Carter said.

Clack expressed surprise at Carter's allegations, saying that Carter is among those with whom he frequently consults to be sure that department practices are racially equitable.

Clack rebutted the Blazers' claims that the department failed to hire enough African-Americans, pointing to statistics showing that about one-third of the members of the two most recently hired classes of recruits are minorities.

Clack said he has implemented strict — and universally applied — guidelines for discipline, replacing a system that allowed captains to mete out punishments at their discretion. The new system has caused many complaints, Clack said, because some firefighters had been accustomed to less rigid systems of discipline.

The fire chief also denied the Blazers' allegations of racial discrimination in promotions. Most promotions are based on scores on a written test, Clack said, and are overseen by the city's human resources department.

"It's handled in a very structured way," he said. "Whoever does the best on the test gets promoted."

The chief said he had the discretion only to promote firefighters to a dozen at-will positions — including the promotions he announced Tuesday. One-third of those dozen positions are held by African-Americans, he pointed out.

Clack said he supported the Blazers' mission — and is a dues-paying member of the organization — but wished that they would bring specific concerns to his attention so that he could remedy them.

"I think the purpose of the organization is noble, but I don't think what is going on here has any validity," he said.