Cobb County, GA, Fire Officials Modify Hiring Practices after Federal Probe

April 5, 2024
Department of Justice investigators determined the fire department checked credit reports and used a test unrelated to firefighting.

Taylor Croft

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The Cobb County Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to enter a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice over the county fire department’s hiring practices that the federal government says discriminated against Black job applicants.

From 2016 to 2020, the fire department checked credit reports in the screening process for job seekers, which the DOJ found “disparately impacted African American applicants” because their credit history had no relation to firefighting ability. The department also used a standardized test for advancement that was found to be discriminatory. It is unclear how that violated federal law.

The practices “were not sufficiently job-related or consistent with business necessity,” the investigation found. It also found “no evidence of intentional discrimination by the fire department,” according to a county news release.

The DOJ investigation began in 2019. The fire department stopped both practices in 2020.

As part of the agreement, the county will pay $750,000 to be split among those impacted by the practices, and will hire up to 16 people to work in the fire department from that pool of eligible individuals, according to the county.

“We are pleased that the DOJ’s comprehensive review confirmed no intentional discrimination in our hiring practices and identified no issues with our current process,” Fire Chief Bill Johnson said in the release. “We are dedicated to continuing our efforts to recruit, hire, and retain well-qualified firefighters to serve Cobb’s citizens.”

County spokesman Ross Cavitt declined to comment when asked for additional information about the investigation and the settlement agreement, which was reviewed by the Board of Commissioners during executive session on March 25. The consent decree was not made available through Cavitt or in the county’s agenda for the Tuesday meeting.

It is unclear how the DOJ’s investigation came about. The federal government has determined through other cases that criminal and financial background checks can be discriminatory in some instances. The county is entering the settlement to avoid future litigation, which would have been filed had an agreement not been reached, according to a memo on the matter from the county attorney.

Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says “employers should not use a policy or practice that excludes people with certain criminal records if the policy or practice significantly disadvantages individuals of a particular race, national origin, or another protected characteristic, and does not accurately predict who will be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee.”

“I look forward to resolving this with the DOJ to end any practices that could have unintended disparate or discriminatory impacts,” Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said in the news release. “Our goal is and should always to be inclusive in finding the best candidates to work in Cobb County.”

The agreement must still be approved by a federal district court.

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