Feds: Austin Fire Dept. Discriminates Against Hispanics, African Americans

Sept. 27--The U.S. Department of Justice has found that the Austin Fire Department is engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African American and Hispanics as a result of its hiring process, according to a letter the city received Thursday from the federal agency.

The Justice Department found that the Fire Department's hiring process in 2012 disproportionately screened out African Americans and Hispanics, according to the letter. A preliminary analysis shows a different hiring process the Fire Department used to screen fire cadet applicants this year, it said, also will cause adverse impact.

"We have serious concerns that, if implemented, the city's 2013 hiring process will" violate federal law, the letter says.

Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr could not be reached for comment Thursday, but in a memo she sent to department personnel Thursday night, she said she will continue to work with the city's law department and the Justice Department.

Her memo describes the Justice Department's determination as being that the Fire Department is engaged in a pattern of "unintended discrimination against African-Americans and Hispanics in its hiring process."

Federal law prohibits both intentional discrimination and employment actions that are "fair in form but discriminatory in operation."

An assistant attorney general with the Justice Department has authorized the filing of a lawsuit against the city to ensure the Fire Department complies with federal law and remedies the effects of past discrimination, the letter says, and a suit would be filed no later than Oct. 26.

However, the letter indicates that the city has expressed interest in participating in settlement negotiations, and that litigation may not be necessary.

In a statement sent to the American-Statesman, City Manager Marc Ott said the city appreciates the Justice Department's "attention to this matter" and acknowledgment of the city's cooperation during the investigation.

"We have been unable to find a solution on our own and that is unfortunate," he said. "We look forward to working with the Department of Justice, the Fire Department and the Austin Firefighters Association in our efforts to select the best and most qualified applicants to serve in our department."

In order to follow the law, the letter suggests that the city modify its hiring process and provide relief to the African-American and Hispanic applicants harmed by the city's 2012 hiring process.

The Justice Department's letter comes less than two weeks after the city received a letter from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which similarly announced that it had found that minority applicants for the Austin Fire Department's 2012 cadet academy were discriminated against.

The federal agency said it had finished an investigation into the department's hiring practices from 2012 and found that a group of black applicants was discriminated against because of race and a group of Hispanic applicants was discriminated against because of national origin.

The findings led the city to say it would no longer tap candidates from the 2012 hiring list to become firefighters.

It wasn't clear Thursday how the Justice Department's findings will affect this year's hiring process.

The Justice Department announced in April that it was authorizing an investigation into the Fire Department's hiring practices based on information indicating it might discriminate against some minorities.