The Ladder

Part 2: Do White, Black, and Hispanic Firefighters in New Haven Get Along?
The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 25 2009 7:17 AM

The Ladder

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Mike Neal. Click image to expand.
Mike Neal, New Haven firefighter

New Haven firefighters work in shifts, in small groups that stay together day after day. White, black, and Hispanic members who share a shift build up the kind of bickering intimacy you find in a family. "We've gotten to the point where we understand each other," said Mike Neal, a young black firefighter with a square jaw and a square build. Earlier that day, eating lunch in the Howard Avenue firehouse with the people on his shift of 11 (four white, six black, and one Hispanic), he'd bantered with them and danced on command while everyone laughed through mouthfuls of sandwich. Outside that small and steady group, however, Neal said relations can turn cool. "Like some people only cook for certain people," he said, recalling racial tensions when he was on a detail at a different firehouse. "Or someone hides a black guy's boots, and then a call comes and he can't respond in a timely way like he's supposed to."

Tom Heins, an older man on Neal's shift with glasses and graying hair, said he sees racial divisions in the department, too. But Heins, who is white, doesn't think they're malicious. "To me, it's just like guys who like the Yankees and guys who like the Red Sox," he said. At another firehouse, William Gould, a white captain whose father and grandfather both served as fire chief in New Haven, also played down the importance of the racial divide. "People may not care to be in each other's company, but I've never been direct witness to a racial incident," he said. "You have your subgroups within any organization."

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There is only one woman on the Howard Avenue shift with Neal and Heins. Erika Bogan, who is black, is one of 11 female firefighters in the entire city. (That's a whole different subject.) She explained that race is only one marker of difference between white firefighters like Frank Ricci and black and Hispanic ones. Many of New Haven's white firefighters live outside the city, in Connecticut suburbs like Wallingford (95 percent white), where Frank Ricci has a home; Guilford (94 percent white); and Madison (97 percent). New Haven, by contrast, is 44 percent white, about one-third black, and about one-quarter Hispanic.

Bogan says that when black kids peek into the Howard Avenue firehouse, oohing at the trucks, she and her fellow black firefighters like Mike Neal scoop them up and take them inside. But the suburban white guys, she says, ignore the kids. She said she has also heard them joke on the phone about "working in the ghetto." "How dare you, when you live in Madison or Guilford, come in here and take our money and go back to your communities and talk shit about New Haven?" she asked.

There's more than civic pride at stake here. This is also a sore point because the city gives no advantage to New Haven residents in determining promotions. (For entry-level hiring, applicants who live in New Haven get a five-point boost out of 100 total points.) Meanwhile, the firefighters from the suburbs are more likely to have experience as volunteer firefighters—which gives them a leg up on skills when they apply for the job—and to come from families in which firefighting is a legacy. Tom Heins' father and four uncles were all firefighters. "It's all I ever wanted to be, ever since I could remember," he said. Frank Ricci has an uncle and two brothers who are firefighters. He studied fire science at college. Like the rest of the plaintiffs, Ricci isn't talking to the press. But he'd probably echo Tom Heins' feelings of childhood aspiration. "When we were kids, we could either be a fireman, or a fireman, or a fireman," he told a McClatchy columnist in February before his lawyer told him to stop granting interviews.

Neal and Bogan belong to a group called the Firebird Society, the local branch of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. Seated around a few tables pushed together, seven Firebirds stayed to talk to us after a recent evening meeting of the group in a squat police substation in New Haven's Dixwell neighborhood, a mix of storefront churches, corner stores, and row houses.

The Firebirds see the family ties of men like Heins and Ricci as part of a network of influence that only white firefighters can tap into. "If you look at the history of the department there's a group of folks, their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles—they're all part of this network," said Gary Tinney, the head of the Firebirds and one of nine black lieutenants out of about 50 in the department.

That network, Tinney and other Firebirds say, explains why the union, which represents all of the city's firefighters, has used its dues to support the Ricci plaintiffs. (Union President Pat Egan did not return our phone calls, but you can read his testimony at a 2004 public hearing about the tests here.)

Initially, in 2004, the union's executive board voted on whether to file its own separate lawsuit to support Ricci. Before the vote, Tinney turned to Egan, who is white and whom he thought of as a friend. "I told Pat, 'Don't do this. You can't take sides,' " Tinney remembered. The executive board divided along racial lines (whites in favor of suing, blacks and Hispanics against) and sent the question to an all-union vote. At a rare packed meeting, black firefighters sat on one side and white firefighters on the other. Most of the Hispanics on the force didn't come. In a show of hands, the union members voted, again along racial lines. White firefighters for backing Ricci's group and suing the city. Black firefighters against.

Tinney's warning to Egan proved legally prescient. A federal judge later dismissedthe union's suit, ruling that the union couldn't take sides because it had an inherent conflict of interest. All of its members were paying dues; the lawsuit would expressly serve the interests of a select few over the objections of many of the others. Angry with the union, Tinney sued. Suit, countersuit, and more pitting of one group against another. *

What about the Hispanics on New Haven's force—how do they see the test and the broader questions of fairness? They are significantly underrepresented throughout the ranks: Out of 411 firefighters in the city, only 50 are Hispanic—12 percent, in a city where there are twice as many Hispanics. The International Association of Hispanic Firefighters filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of New Haven against the Ricci plaintiffs.

But locally, with the exception of the Latino firefighter who joined the reverse-discrimination suit, Hispanics on the force are largely sitting this fight out. This frustrates the Firebirds. "They know that we'll fight, and if we win, they win," Tinney said. "They need to step up." Rene Cordova, the president of the local branch of the Hispanic Firefighters Association, did not return our calls. But in February he told the New Haven Independent, which has done important reporting on the case, that when the city approached him along out of concern about the test results, he decided not to involve his group. "Why get our name and reputation caught up in it?" Cordova said.

Click here to read Part 3: The exam that took the New Haven fire department to the Supreme Court.

Correction, June 26, 2009: In a sentence that no longer appears, the article incorrectly stated that the union contributed money to the Ricci plaintiffs. The article also stated that black firefighters sued their union. In fact, black firefighters tried to sue the union as a group, and when they were not granted standing to do so by the relevant Connecticut agency, Tinney filed suit on his own. (Return  to the corrected paragraph.)

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