News

Cuts threaten diversity and public safety

It has been an uphill climb to have appropriate representation of minorities on the Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) force, starting with the 1972 Carter vs. Gallagher lawsuit which forced the MFD to but marginally change its practice of discrimination. It has been an uphill climb to have appropriate representation of minorities on the Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) force, starting with the 1972 Carter vs. Gallagher lawsuit which forced the MFD to but marginally change its practice of discrimination.

The looming state budget cuts as proposed by Gov Tim Pawlenty is not going to help matters. Firefighter Tawana Anderson, the ninth Black woman to attain that position, has received her layoff notice effective April 18. The force’s only Native American will also be cut, as will Asian American firefighters who’ve joined the department. It seems where unfair hiring practices left off, de facto firing practices have picked up.

At the March 25 Conversations with Al McFarlane: Public Policy Forums at Lucille’s Kitchen, Anderson and her colleague’s firefighters Melanie Rich and Captain Brian Tyner reflected on this state of affairs. According to Tyner, roughly one-fifth of the 55 firefighters set to lose their jobs will be people of color and, with impending demotions, there will be no one of color left over the rank of captain. All three are members of the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association.

Host Al McFarlane commented, “I’m aware, generally, of the process (known as) last hired, and first fired. It’s important to me that we have the will as a community and as citizens to say that, the diversity goals that were established by the lawsuit are important enough to take priority over the budget considerations. As a resident and citizen, I am willing to pay more taxes to keep my neighborhood safe, free of fire hazards and capable of responding to danger.”

Tyner agreed. “That has to be the main issue. It has to be about public safety,” he said.

Rich stated, “We (African American personnel) are there to make a commitment to the community and our fire department should reflect the Community’s population. Our lives are (under) increased danger because of the lack of people we have on the job.”

The National Fire Protection Association calls for a minimum of four firefighters per engine when a station is called to a fire. This includes a person to run the water pump, two firefighters to bring the hose to put out the fire and a fourth to help move the hose and hook up a backup engine’s hose to a hydrant.

According to MFD officials, it is a goal to get firefighters to the site within eight minutes. Many firefighters argue that with three firefighters per rig, this goal will not be met and that they will not be as effective or efficient in fighting fires.

Following this discussion, Minneapolis City Council members Natalie Johnson Lee (Fifth Ward), Don Samuels (Third Ward) and Minneapolis Police Lieutenant Lee Edwards discussed how to improve relations between Black citizens and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).

Edwards spoke of measures the MPD has taken to relieve friction between the department and the community. “Since 1989, we’ve done all kinds of methods to try to bridge (the) chasm, especially when it comes to communities of color. We’ve had diversity classes. We’ve had diversity on top of diversity classes. We’ve had people come out and explain what you can and cannot do. We, as officers, understand the law.”

“One thing we have not done is reflect the community (in our personnel). I have seen erosion of African Americans on the department. Over the years, the number has dwindled to 5.3 percent. We have 51 African Americans on the (force).”

Quoting council member Samuels, he added, “The City of Minneapolis has changed. Africa’s here. Mexico’s here. Asia’s here. But if you look at the department, you would think you’re in Pretoria.”

Johnson Lee added that there’s a need for more female officers as well. She said, “You have to start with the leadership. First of all, you have the mayor

March 31, 2003
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CONVERSATiONS W/ AL MCFARLANE