The Ladder

Part 5: Is There Any Fair Solution to the New Haven Case?
The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 25 2009 7:17 AM

The Ladder

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Erika Bogan. Click image to expand.
Erika Bogan, New Haven firefighter

If New Haven could start over again, what would it do? How would the city decide which firefighters to promote? Lt. Gary Tinney and the black Firebirds Society favor an alternative called an "assessment center." Assessment centers are designed by testing professionals to evaluate the particular skills needed for a certain job. Rather than distributing written questions and following up with an oral exam, this method intersperses a combination of interviews, group discussions, written exercises, oral presentations, role play, and emergency scenarios in order to closely simulate the job environment. Assessment centers are now used by fire departments from Ohio to the District of Columbia. They have been shown to reduce greatly the disparate impact that New Haven's test had in eliminating black promotional candidates.

To young black firefighters like Mike Neal and Erika Bogan, that sounds like a solution. "We want to be on a level playing field," Neal says. "We want everything to be given to us on our merits." Ricci's group, on the other hand, feel as if they've already earned their promotions based on merit. They did what the city told them to. It's hard to imagine how they'll feel right about starting all over again.

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Neal and Bogan's conception of merit is different from Frank Ricci's. It's easy to see why. Ever since the test results came out, the black Firebirds and the white plaintiffs have had opposing interests. Stretching back further in time, back over the decades, the two groups also see the history of the department through a different lens. For Frank Ricci, the past is a story of ethnic heritage and family pride. For Mike Neal and Erika Bogan, it's a story about breaking the lock on hiring that kept their people out.

Maybe promotions based on an assessment center would serve the city better, in the long-run, by testing for the abilities fire captains and lieutenants most need. Or maybe there are just a lot of firefighters well-qualified to do these jobs and a scant number of openings. "It seems like guys on both sides of the line feel like they've been cheated, like there just aren't enough positions to go around," says William Gould, the white captain. He supports Frank Ricci. But he can see what this fight looks like from the other side. If New Haven could start over, maybe it could also admit outright that it has more deserving firefighters than it has rewards. The city could come up with a measure for who is qualified for the promotions, rather than who is somehow best. And then it could choose from that pool by lottery. That might not exactly be fair, either. But it would recognize that sometimes there may be no such thing.