Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's search for a new fire chief has been framed largely by well-publicized problems with the agency's 911 dispatch system and reports of delayed responses to life-and-death emergencies.
But another deep-rooted, if less noticed, challenge awaits the next chief: the continuing, costly legacy of race and sex discrimination in a uniformed force that remains overwhelmingly male and predominantly white.
Over the last year, payouts in bias-related lawsuits have climbed, the federal government has stepped up its response to employee discrimination complaints, and an internal City Hall battle has raged over voter-imposed reforms intended to combat misconduct in the ranks.
Last week, a Superior Court jury awarded $1.1 million to a black firefighter, Jabari S. Jumaane, who said he endured three decades of discrimination. The verdict followed payouts totaling $1.5 million in other bias cases for the budget year that ended in June.
Some of those escaped public notice in part because the City Council approved deals barring the accusers from publicizing their settlements. One case quietly resolved earlier this year included a $325,000 payment to the department's first black female firefighter, d'Lisa Davies. Davies alleged that she suffered firehouse discrimination over two decades.
As part of that settlement, the city agreed to have the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more closely monitor the department's anti-discrimination training program for firefighters and supervisors.
At the same time, a messy court fight has erupted over the powers of the LAFD's internal watchdog. The position, independent assessor, was created by voters in 2009 to audit the handling of misconduct complaints against LAFD employees.
Attorney Stephen E. Miller, the first person to hold the post, said city attorneys prevented him from doing his job by blocking access to firefighter personnel files. Last month, without explanation, Miller was fired by Garcetti's newly revamped Fire Commission.
Nana Gyamfi, a civil rights lawyer who represented Jumaane, Davies and others in discrimination cases against the LAFD in recent years, welcomed the increased federal oversight, saying the department has failed to rid itself of a culture of bias against firefighters who aren't white men.
"The only time the Fire Department has made any change is when it's forced to make that change," she said. "It's never moved voluntarily in the direction of nondiscrimination."
Fire Department officials say a recent upswing in payouts stems from incidents that occurred years ago, and that they've made progress in curbing discriminatory conduct. "We always want to minimize the potential for recurrence," said Battalion Chief Armando Hogan, a department spokesman.
Garcetti has vowed to fight bias in the city's fire stations. "My priorities in bringing new leadership to the Fire Department are improving emergency response and bringing a much-needed change to the culture there," Garcetti said.
The roots of racial tension in the department run deep.
In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, black firefighters worked only at two South L.A. fire stations. That year, the city Fire Commission ordered Chief John Alderson to integrate the firehouses. When he refused, the commission suspended him for insubordination.
In 1972, when 95% of L.A. firefighters were white, the U.S. Justice Department sued the city, accusing it of discrimination in its recruiting, hiring and promotion. Two years later, the city settled the case, agreeing to increase hiring of black, Latino and Asian firefighters.
More than 40 years later, the department's 3,200 firefighters are more diverse — 50% white, 31% Latino, 12% black and 7% Asian — and officials noted that the last four fire chiefs have been black. But the department doesn't yet reflect the city it serves — Los Angeles is 29% white, 49% Latino, 11% Asian and 10% black, according to the Census Bureau.
Some other cities have had more success hiring women, including Seattle, where almost 9% of firefighters are female, and San Diego, where nearly 8% are female. Nationwide, it is estimated 4% of firefighters are women.
For the first time in five years, the LAFD plans to form a class of new recruits next summer, but a spokesman said it was not yet clear how many women it would include.
In the Davies case, she alleged that department brass hindered her efforts to train and recruit more women to be firefighters. Federal fair employment regulators found Davies had been denied a transfer in retaliation for her protests against discrimination.
Davies had been outspoken about questions of bias. At a 1994 City Council hearing, she recounted being called a "black bitch" at a fire station. According to her attorney, Davies also alleged to federal authorities that a supervisor had called her into an office and complained about her breasts jiggling while she was washing a firetruck. When she questioned the propriety of his conduct, she was charged with insubordination, the attorney said.
Under this year's settlement, the department must allow Davies to use its equipment and training facilities — as an off-duty volunteer — to prepare a diverse group of potential recruits for the LAFD's rigorous hiring exams. The city admitted no wrongdoing, but the agreement barred both Davies and city officials from initiating media coverage of the deal.
In a similar settlement, the city last year agreed to pay $350,000 to firefighter Elena Mattox, who, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was injured while being "excessively drilled" by a male captain, and then harassed for reporting the incident. Under yet another EEOC settlement last year, the city paid $404,500 to firefighter Anthony Almeida, who alleged that co-workers harassed him several years earlier after learning he'd sued the Roman Catholic Church for sexual abuse by a priest. Federal investigators concluded LAFD management failed to address Almeida's complaints and disciplined him as retaliation for assisting another discrimination investigation.
From 2006 to 2010, payouts in LAFD discrimination and harassment cases cost taxpayers more than $17 million. In response to criticism about the large outlays, including a $1.5-million payment to a black firefighter who was fed dog food in a firehouse prank, the department created a professional standards division to investigate complaints.
L.A. voters went further in 2009, approving a measure establishing the independent assessor's post. In a series of reports, Miller, who held the job for nearly four years, documented improvements in the LAFD's response to discrimination complaints. But he also faulted the department's handling of accusations that firefighters used racist epithets and made anti-Semitic remarks. And he found the professional standards unit lacked the capacity to investigate the volume of complaints it received.
But Miller's battles inside City Hall limited the reach of his inquiries. In his first report, he criticized city lawyers for what he characterized as slow and inadequate legal services.
The office of the city attorney at the time, Carmen Trutanich, issued a detailed rebuttal, followed by a legal opinion concluding that the independent assessor had no authority to review firefighters' disciplinary records. Miller argued that he needed access to the files to carry out the duties of his office. A three-year legal battle has ensued between Miller and the city attorney's office.
Trutanich's successor, Mike Feuer, said he could not comment on the controversy but is "analyzing how best to fulfill what the voters intended." "I look forward to working with the Board of Fire Commissioners and the next independent assessor to assure they have the tools they need to perform their duties," Feuer said.
Garcetti also said the ongoing litigation prevented him from discussing the role of the internal LAFD watchdog. In a prepared statement, a spokesman for the mayor said: "We want the independent assessor to have the tools necessary to help bring real reform to the department and believe that includes access to personnel records."