Chicago OIG Releases Report on Fire Department Discrimination

The Inspector General for the City of Chicago released a long-awaited report into race discrimination and sexual harassment in the Chicago Fire Department. The 51-page report titled an “Audit of Policies and Practices Related to Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Within the Chicago Fire Department,” outlines the reasons for the investigation, the OIG’s findings, the recommendations, and the steps the department has committed to take to help improve conditions.

The OIG report points to multiple lawsuits the department has faced over the years, five of which were of particular concern (quoting from the report):

  • Lewis v. City of Chicago, 98-CV-5597 (N.D. Ill. 1998), a case that went to the Supreme Court of the United States, the City was found liable for racial discrimination arising from the Department’s administration of its 1995 promotional exam.
  • Vasich v. City of Chicago, 11-CV-4843 (N.D. Ill. 2011) and Godfrey v. City of Chicago, 12-CV-8601 (N.D. Ill. 2012) resulted in class action settlements arising from claims that CFD’s physical capabilities hiring test discriminated on the basis of gender.
  • Doe v. City of Chicago, 18-CV-3054 (N.D. Ill. 2018), five female paramedics allege that their superiors engaged in improper conduct.
  • Spriesch v. City of Chicago, 17-CV-1952 (N.D. Ill. 2017), the plaintiff alleges she was forced to take leave because of her pregnancy and was not provided with necessary accommodations to pump breast milk after returning to work.

Among the highlights from the OIG report:

  • OIG concluded that, while CFD’s policies comply with baseline federal, state, and local laws, the policies themselves, as well as the complaint process and training used to enforce and promote them, are insufficient to meet the environmental challenges posed by a command and control emergency service operation like CFD.
  • Furthermore, the Department’s culture and workplace environment may make some members vulnerable to discrimination and/or sexual harassment.
  • The Department is not alone in facing these issues; nationwide, fire department demographics are relatively homogenous and share historical cultural challenges related to discrimination and sexual harassment.
  • CFD has been the subject of allegations and findings of discrimination and harassment against non-White and non-male members.
  • OIG also found that the mandatory training the Department of Human Resources – Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity Division (EEO Division) provides to CFD is high-quality, but that it is not adequately tailored to serve the needs of the Department’s command and control structure, unique aspects of its workplace, and the tension arising from its history of overt racial and gender discrimination.
  • An expert in workplace anti-sexual harassment trainings suggested to OIG that CFD would benefit from providing trainings directly relevant to the Department’s work environment and utilizing instructors with fire service experience.
  • Prior to this audit, CFD’s complaint reporting and investigation initiation procedures lacked privacy and left members vulnerable to retaliation.
  • In response to a notification letter from OIG outlining issues with the complaint process, CFD implemented changes to its policy that will help protect complainants’ privacy.
  • OIG recommends that CFD provide written guidance and training to its IAD staff on processes for receiving complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment in a trauma-informed manner and referring them to the EEO Division for investigation.
  • CFD should implement training for its members, supplemental to the training provided by the EEO Division, that is tailored specifically to CFD’s unique workplace environment and delivered by instructors with fire service experience.
  • In response to our audit finding and recommendations, CFD stated that it will create written guidelines for referring discrimination and sexual harassment complaints to the EEO Division and will train its IAD investigators on trauma-informed interviewing techniques.
  • CFD will provide its members with supplemental training on discrimination and sexual harassment that is tailored to the Department’s workplace.

Given the OIG’s highlighting of discrimination and harassment suits, I thought it would be interesting to compare the Chicago Fire Department with other major metropolitan fire departments. In particular, I wondered whether Chicago’s problem was actually worse than other departments. As of this moment, my database contains 10,850 cases. Among them there are 78 civil suits involving the Chicago Fire Department, 37 of which are employment related, 5 of which allege race discrimination, and 4 allege sexual harassment. To put those numbers into perspective, compare that to the following fire departments with 35 or more civil suits in the database:

 CasesEmploymentRaceSexual Harassment
FDNY               24199378
Chicago         783754
DC                 553774
Philadelphia   4728112
Houston          382373
LA City          372192
As April 14, 2021 with 10850 cases, FDs with at least 35 civil suits in the database

Understand that my numbers are not complete – I am no doubt missing numerous cases from each of the named departments. However, it may serve as a reference point for comparison purposes.

Here is a copy of the OIG report:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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