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Ga. county, Justice Department settle FD hiring practice dispute

Federal prosecutors alleged that Cobb County’s firefighter hiring discriminated against African-American applicants


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By Jake Busch
Marietta Daily Journal

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Last month, the Cobb Board of Commissioners approved entering into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over hiring practices for firefighters that federal prosecutors allege discriminated against African-American applicants.

That agreement would avoid a trial in the lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday by Ryan Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

Buchanan confirmed the agreement in an announcement Thursday, the same day the consent decree between the county and DOJ was filed in U.S. District Court.

“Every person, regardless of race, deserves an equal opportunity to compete for jobs. Employers should identify and eliminate policies and procedures that create a discriminatory impact on applicants based on race,” Buchanan said. “Our office will continue to devote resources to eliminate prejudicial policies that illegally deprive qualified candidates of a fair chance to compete for employment opportunities.”

Buchanan’s office began its investigation into the county’s hiring practices for the fire department in November 2019.

Specifically, Buchanan’s office alleged “a pattern or practice of discrimination against African Americans in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color and national origin.

While it did not find evidence of intentional discrimination in the Cobb Fire Department’s hiring practices from 2016-2020, the DOJ found that a couple of practices “had a disparate impact on African-American firefighter applicants during that time period,” according to Cobb County Attorney William Rowling.

To make progress, we must first condemn such racism and acknowledge our role in its continued existence

Those practices included the department’s use of a credit check as a screening device and rank-order usage of a standardized test for applicants, Rowling added.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the DOJ said that “the County’s use of these employment practices disproportionately removed qualified African Americans from consideration for a firefighter position.

“The complaint further alleges that the credit check and the use of the written exam to rank applicants do not lawfully identify the best-qualified candidates for the firefighter position,” the lawsuit added.

The agreement between the county and DOJ, subject to court approval, would require Cobb to pay $750,000 in pro rata monetary relief to eligible individuals who were disqualified by prior hiring practices. It will also force the county to hire up to 16 firefighters from the pool of eligible individuals.

Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid previously told the MDJ she remained in the loop about the proposed agreement as the county attorney’s office has negotiated.

“In 2020, our fire department ceased the practices that led to the DOJ’s contentions,” Cupid said. “I look forward to resolving this with the DOJ to end any practices that could have unintended disparate or discriminatory impacts. Our goal is and should always to be inclusive in finding the best candidates to work in Cobb County.”

Cobb Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said there was consensus on the board to move forward with the consent order, though that did not mean it was an easy decision to make.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow when we know there was no wrongdoing or intentional discrimination and we have not had credit checks in place since 2020,” Birrell wrote. “It is my understanding that there are other jurisdictions that still use these same hiring practices across the country. Our fire (department) has an ISO rating of 1 and our firefighters are the best bar none and I’m glad we are able to resolve this issue once and for all.”

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