Kansas City may hire outside lawyers to probe racism, harassment in fire department
A recent investigation reportedly revealed a culture of systemic racism and sexism that has been allowed to flourish for decades
Allison Kite, Glenn E. Rice, and Mike Hendricks
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY — Kansas City will likely hire outside legal counsel to investigate discrimination in its fire department after a Star investigation revealed a culture of systemic racism and sexism that has been allowed to flourish for decades.
City Council committee members were eager to adopt legislation to get outside counsel to look at the way the Kansas City Fire Department is implementing the city's rules against discrimination and harassment, saying they had a duty to protect city employees.
The focus comes after The Star's year-long investigation detailed decades of systemic racism and sexism tolerated by KCFD and City Hall officials. The three-part series found that Black firefighters have been harassed and put in danger, kept from sought-after stations through unwritten rules of segregation and passed over for promotions.
Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, 3rd District, outlined The Star's findings to her council colleagues, saying the council doesn't want any city employees to endure the type of harassment firefighters have reported.
"And that could be happening today, so it is our duty to protect our workers and we cannot wait," she said.
In a city where 30% of residents are Black, only 14% of the fire department is. At the upper ranks, firefighters of color are even more underrepresented.
Black firefighters are kept out of busy, inner-city fire stations, which are the most sought-after posts because firefighters respond to far more calls and gain experience that can help them get promoted. Some of those historically white stations haven't had a Black captain in at least a decade.
Female firefighters have reported severe sexual harassment, and after receiving a special sales tax for two decades, the fire department still hasn't outfitted all of its fire stations to accommodate women.
When the series published, Fire Chief Donna Lake said in a statement that the issues facing KCFD are "a microcosm" of the larger community and society, and just as the rest of the world struggles to improve equity and inclusion, "KCFD must rise to do the same." She said issues that have resulted in racism and discrimination "cannot go unaddressed."
"Every person who steps forward to serve this City as a member of KCFD has every right to a workplace free from any sort of discrimination or harassment," said Lake, the department's first female chief. "Our elected officials, city leadership, the media and the public should question our past practices and have every right to expect change."
Within days of The Star's report, the City Council brought Lake in to answer questions, and City Manager Brian Platt instructed her to come up with a plan to address the issue.
Lake said at the time the department has taken steps to address discrimination and poor recruitment of minority firefighters.
"I'm proud to say that the current ... cadet class is the most diverse class we recruited in years," she said.
Some council members suggested waiting until they receive Lake's report to move forward. But Robinson said the issue was urgent and the council should move forward with the legislation because even after it passed, it would take the city time to find and hire a firm to do the work.
Her colleagues agreed. The Finance Governance and Public Safety voted unanimously in favor of the legislation, and the full City Council is expected to hear it next week.
The committee is also moving forward with creating a chief equity officer position that would oversee the city's efforts toward rooting out discrimination. Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw, 5th District, developed the legislation in conjunction with Robinson's resolution, but it would address all departments, not just KCFD.
Lake told The Star on Wednesday that KCFD would continue to work with the City Council and Platt. She said she thought hiring an equity officer would benefit both her department and the city as a whole.
Under the legislation, Platt is to develop a plan to create the position and bring it back to the council along with information about how much it would cost. He would also be charged with creating a task force to review city practices and programs for equity and fairness. That would be made up of city employees, including members of management and employee unions.
Council members have been hesitant over the last few months to commit funding to new programs as the city endures a financial crisis brought on by the pandemic. But the committee members were uniformly in support of the equity officer position.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, chairs the finance committee and supported putting the position in the city budget, which the council must pass this spring.
"I think there are a lot of hard decisions there, but clearly this is a critical role," Shields said.
Committee members voted unanimously in favor of the legislation, which the full City Council is expected to consider on Thursday.
(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)