Diversity within fire and police departments not so simple

State mandates testing, rigid interview rules

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By Maria Maxham

Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins, in recently appointing a new Police and Fire Commission, hopes to bring more diversity to police and fire departments in Forest Park. Both departments have been accused of failing to represent the diversity of the village within their ranks. During the recent mayoral debates, Hoskins said Forest Park has never had an African American firefighter and doesn't have many black police officers.

The numbers support that reality. Of 36 full time police officers, Chief Tom Aftanas says the department currently has five women, one of whom is Hispanic, one Asian male lieutenant, one African American male patrol officer, and two Hispanic male patrol officers. Out of 23 full time firefighters, Fire Chief Bob McDermott says there is one white female, one Hispanic male, and one Asian male. The rest are white males.

The hiring process for Forest Park police and fire personnel is mandated by the state. Village Administrator Tim Gillian said that Forest Park, as "a non-home rule municipality, is bound by state laws regarding hiring of police and fire. We have no leeway whatsoever to do anything that's already not a state law."

Hiring and promoting fire and police officers is not done by the police or fire chiefs. In fact, Aftanas said that the first time he sees the applicants is at orientation, after they've already been hired. Hiring is the responsibility of the police and fire commission. State municipal code requires that for a village the size of Forest Park, this commission must be a three-person board. Forest Park's commission, however, operated with only two members after the 2017 death of Brad Zadstra. This spring, post-election, Amy Rita, a longtime commission member, stepped down and Steve Hinton moved out of town. As a result, Hoskins had the opportunity to appoint three new members to the commission.

The commission is now chaired by Rachel Entler, a long-time resident and until April a member of the village council. Entler's father once served as Forest Park's fire chief. With a lot of experience in the administration and in the village itself, Hoskins says Entler will "bring her experience and knowledge of the workings of Forest Park to the board." Residents Kate Webster, who previously served as the chair of the Forest Park Diversity Commission, and attorney Jerry Bramwell were also appointed by Hoskins. The result is a brand-new commission, now tasked with the difficult job of figuring out how to bring more diversity to the village's police and fire departments. 

The process to become a police officer in Forest Park is extensive. It begins with a state written exam administered by a third-party agency hired by the village to assist with the hiring process. A preliminary list of candidates then has preference points added to the score before a final list is posted. Preference points are given for education levels, extra certifications or being a military veteran. As Entler says, preference points are very objective and are not given for ethnicity or race.

The next step for a candidate is an oral interview with the commission itself. This pass/fail exam is very objective.  "The scoring criteria is listed on the questions. There is a point scale based on your response" so there is no subjectivity, says Deputy Fire Chief Phil Chiappetta.  

Candidates that pass the oral interview are subject to other tests, including a polygraph test, a background check, and a medical exam. At any point if a candidate fails a test, they will be stricken from the final eligibility list.

The fire department's hiring process is similar but has the added qualification that all new firefighter hires must first be trained and licensed paramedics. Many local towns have this requirement, which ensures that all first responders are equipped to handle medical emergencies.

Aftanas said given a small force, losing a few minority members can change the statistics drastically. Recently, he said, the village lost several minorities from the department. A Hispanic officer moved out of state, an African American officer retired after 28 years, and another left due to disability. That changes the demographics of the department significantly.

Additionally, jobs as police officers and fire fighters are career positions, and there isn't much turnover in the departments. Aftanas and McDermott say that until recent retirements, 15 years has been the average career length.

Another roadblock to hiring a more diverse force is that fewer minorities are pursuing careers in the field. Chicago Fire Lt. Quention Curtis, a 30-plus year veteran with the Chicago department, says less than one percent of graduates from paramedic programs in the Chicago area are African American. Curtis, founder and president of the Black Fire Brigade in Chicago, said the 2019 paramedic class at Malcolm X College had no African American students. If minorities aren't pursuing careers in civil service, bringing them into local departments is difficult.

Hoskins agrees it's a complicated issue, and it can't be fixed overnight. But he said, "personnel is policy," and that appointing the new members to the commission is a step in the right direction.  He said the demographics of Forest Park have changed relatively quickly over the past decade, and the departments can't keep up with such rapid change, especially given the fact that fire and police officers are career positions with little turnover. He said, "diversity is a great goal, but we don't want to sacrifice professionalism" in order to achieve it Instead, he said Forest Park needs to look for "long term strategies to better recruit test takers."

Curtis agrees. He started the Black Fire Brigade in June 2018. An organization of black firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, the goal of his group is to inspire and train black youth and women to pursue careers in firefighting, a field where both are underrepresented. He also says his organization works with communities to figure out how to bring more diversity into such jobs.

He said a good place to start is with high school students. He's an advocate of getting kids off the streets. "If you teach a kid how to save a life, he's less likely to take one," says Curtis. Teaching fire science and EMT skills in high school is a great way to pave the way for minorities to pursue a career as a firefighter, he says. 

McDermott also believes that teaching high school students about the path to become a firefighter is a great way to inspire young people to pursue a career in the field. The fire department participates in career days, where firefighters talk to high school students about what it takes to be a firefighter. Triton College, he says, has a great fire science program. He likes to tell high school students about the steps necessary to become a firefighter, which, in Forest Park and many neighboring communities, includes becoming an EMT and then a paramedic.

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Kate Nolan  

Posted: September 14th, 2019 12:52 PM

Filling a clean slate responsibly is a good thing. Well done, Mayor Hoskins. I'd like to add that Maria Maxham's reporting on this and other issues has been excellent. Clear, concise and comprehensive.

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