A federal judge on Monday ended a 1974 consent decree requiring that half of all Los Angeles firefighters be hired from the ranks of blacks, Latinos and Asians to alleviate racial disparities.
"Twenty eight years of water has now passed over the dam. All of the goals of the original consent decree have been accomplished," U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp wrote.
The ruling represents a historic moment for the 3,334-member department, once considered a bastion of resistance to racial integration.
When the city originally signed the decree to settle a Justice Department complaint, nonwhites made up a mere 5% of the firefighter force. Today, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans account for 50.2% of Los Angeles' firefighters, according to city figures. "No racial group now has a majority in the Fire Department," Hupp noted.
The Justice Department's civil rights division and the Los Angeles city attorney's office, parties to the 1974 agreement, filed briefs in March asking the judge to scrap the racial hiring quotas.
Under terms of the decree, the city had promised to hire at least 50% nonwhites annually until minority representation matched the racial composition of the city's civilian labor force.
In its brief, the Justice Department said the city had complied with the decree in good faith, resulting in significant improvements.
The department cited figures showing that Latino representation among firefighters climbed from 3.1% in 1975 to 31% at the end of 2001, while the percentage of blacks rose from 1.9% to 13.2% and Asian ranks swelled from .06% to 6% during that period.
"The consent decree has outlasted its purpose and is now obsolete," wrote Hupp.
Lawyers for the city argued that the consent decree now works against racial minorities.
As written, the decree requires that half of those allowed to take the firefighters' exam must be Caucasian, the city attorney's office said in its brief. Nevertheless, whites constitute less than 30% of the city's population, according to the 2000 census, down from about 75% in the mid-1970s.
If the city were to continue under the 50% Caucasian and 50% minority standard, there would never be parity with the general work force and the consent decree would be "waiting to greet those Angeleno descendants born in the next millennium," wrote Deputy City Atty. Vivienne Swanigan.
Hupp's ruling was an outgrowth of lawsuits filed by four white applicants who challenged the constitutionality of the 1974 consent decree.
Their lawyers argued that the consent decree had been transformed from a "tool to eliminate vestiges of prior discrimination into an institutionalized form of hiring based primarily on race."
Since 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that race-based programs must be "narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest," wrote Manuel Klausner and Patrick Manshardt of the Individual Rights Foundation, a conservative-libertarian legal group that represented the white plaintiffs.
The consent decree, they said, no longer serves its intended purpose and, therefore, violates the firefighters' 5th Amendment rights to due process and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection.
In the face of that legal challenge, the Justice Department and the city attorney's office reviewed the consent decree late last year and concluded that its goals had been met.
Hupp did not rule on the constitutional challenge raised by the white applicants, but Manshardt said after Monday's ruling that he was pleased.
Although the Justice Department called for eliminating the decree's racial hiring quotas, it asked Hupp to retain jurisdiction over the case while it reviews the fairness of the entrance exam now given to firefighter applicants.
The Justice Department said the exam has a "disparate impact against" blacks and Latinos, although it is not clear whether any civil rights laws have been broken.
Hupp told the department to file a new lawsuit if it cannot resolve the problem informally with the city.
At Fire Department headquarters, a spokesman hailed the judge's order. "It's a testament to the recruitment efforts that we've put forward all these years," said Battalion Chief Robert Franco, the department's community liaison officer.
While agreeing that the department has made great strides in minority hiring, the president of an organization of black firefighters expressed some concern about ending the consent decree.
Fire inspector Bill Parker, head of the Stentorians, said the department has improved under Chief William R. Bammatre, "but I'm worried about what might happen after him, two or three chiefs down the line. Will there be any backsliding without a consent decree?"
The Los Angeles Fire Department was not always hospitable to African Americans and other racial minorities. Although blacks were first hired in 1897, they were segregated from white firefighters.
There were only two stations where they could work. Promotions occurred only when there was a death or retirement at one of those stations.
In the mid-1950s, the Fire Commission ordered an end to segregation, but several more years elapsed before the directive was fully implemented. And it took more than a quarter of a century under a federal court decree for minorities to achieve parity in hiring opportunities.
Female firefighters sued the department in 1994, alleging discrimination and harassment. But Bammatre has said he is determined to hire more women and ensure that they are treated fairly.