DOJ investigates allegations of racism in Mo. fire department
Three Black Kansas City firefighters say they have experienced a hostile work environment and retaliation for speaking to investigators
By Luke Nozicka, Glenn E. Rice and Mike Hendricks
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Kansas City Fire Department over allegations of racial discrimination within the fire department, The Star has learned.
Three Black firefighters say they were interviewed within the last year about racism they have faced within the fire service and their complaints of a hostile work environment. They named others who have been interviewed, as well.
The inquiries began months after The Kansas City Star published a series of stories in December 2020 detailing systemic racism and sex discrimination within the department.
Sherae Honeycutt, a Kansas City spokeswoman, confirmed the investigation and said the city was “cooperating fully.”
Lawyers for Battalion Chief Stephen Seals, 55, who is Black, made the first publicly known reference to a DOJ investigation in a lawsuit filed last week in Jackson County Circuit Court. He alleges he was retaliated against for speaking to DOJ investigators, among other things.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for the high-ranking firefighter said he was contacted by the Justice Department in January 2022 about its investigation into allegations of race discrimination and the department’s hiring and promotional practices.
Federal investigators were looking into the work environment and its “impact on African-American firefighters,” according to the lawsuit.
Seals spoke with the DOJ twice in January 2022, according to his lawsuit. In August, he was interviewed again and told his deputy chief he was participating in the probe.
Since he alleged discrimination and spoke with the DOJ, he has “experienced additional retaliation by the KCFD,” according to the lawsuit.
Seals referred The Star to his attorneys at the law firm Siro Smith Dickson PC. They declined to comment, saying they do not discuss pending litigation.
Reached on Wednesday afternoon, Interim Fire Chief Ross Grundyson directed The Star to the city’s legal department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
One Black firefighter, who requested that his name not be published for fear of retaliation, said he was contacted by a DOJ investigator about eight months ago. He later received an email that contained a Zoom link for a formal interview.
The firefighter said he spoke with at least three investigators for about four hours. Their conversation focused on the firefighter’s experience with racism in the department, the promotion process and the treatment of other Black employees inside the fire service.
“It’s not just one person, but it is a multi-layer system” where there are no consequences for bad behavior, he said. “They can treat you any kind of way.”
The firefighter said he is pleased that federal investigators are looking at the fire department. But he remains pessimistic that lasting reforms will occur.
“I’m glad they’re coming in to look but what results they’re going to get is yet to be determined,” he said. “After all is said and done, nobody’s going to get fired and nothing is going to change.”
A former high-ranking firefighter, who is Black, also said he was interviewed by DOJ investigators for about four hours several months ago.
Another fire department source told The Star that the DOJ last year interviewed an entire recruit class.
Separately, the Justice Department last year launched a formal investigation into the Kansas City Police Department’s employment practices. That probe came months after a Star investigation into racism faced by Black officers.
The Star’s year-long investigation of the fire department found a pattern of systemic racism and harassment that had been tolerated by its leaders for decades.
For generations, white men dominated the fire service, the newspaper found. Black and women firefighters were ostracized and put in danger, shut out of the most desirable fire stations, and passed over for promotions.
The Star also reported that in a city where 30% of residents are Black, only 14% of the fire department was. Of the 48 highest-ranking firefighters, only three at the time were Black.
A KCFD member since 1995, Seals was among those who sued the department, alleging he was repeatedly passed over for promotions in favor of white candidates. In 2021, Kansas City agreed to pay him $250,000.
Before that, Seals filed a lawsuit in 2017, saying he was retaliated against for reporting on behalf of a Black cadet that a white classmate used a racial slur. That lawsuit was dismissed.
In his new lawsuit, Seals alleges he was passed over for a job and retaliated against because he had sued the city previously and spoke out about discrimination when he joined diversity and inclusion task forces created in 2021 by then-Fire Chief Donna Lake.
A less qualified and younger employee, who is also Black, got the shift deputy chief job that Seals sought, according to his lawsuit. He also claimed one of his current responsibilities — scheduling physical exams for KCFD personnel — was taken away from him.
Seals filed a grievance that was denied months later, in 2023. Since then, he has experienced continuous acts of discrimination, retaliation and discipline, his lawyers say.
Seals is also alleging retaliation in violation of a state employee whistleblower law. An initial hearing in the lawsuit has been set for December.
As a result of The Star’s investigation, the city commissioned two studies. One conducted by the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which cost the city up to $300,000, has never been released. When it was completed last October, City Manager Brian Platt said the full report was a closed record and would not be made public because those interviewed had been promised anonymity.
“But we are going to try to summarize and sanitize something for public consumption in the coming weeks,” he said in an Oct. 19 email to The Star. That “sanitized” version was never released to the news media or the civil rights leaders who requested it.
Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said Wednesday the “ongoing” race and gender discrimination at the fire department warrants DOJ attention.
“I hope they extend their investigation to include all city operations,” she said. “Numerous lawsuits and out-of-court settlements indicate that we have a far-reaching problem that will continue as long as (Mayor Quinton) Lucas and Platt are in charge. Federal oversight is our only opportunity for redress.”
In February, a city council committee heard public testimony from a consultant who was hired to study the department’s culture. That 163-page cultural assessment described a fire department rife with discriminatory behavior and practices in hiring and promotions due to a power imbalance between management and the firefighters unions.
According to that report:
“Many male and female KCFD members who were White and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) shed tears and/or were visibly distraught in discussion groups and interviews as they relayed accounts of people who had been ostracized and ridiculed for not supporting Union or dominant group positions, or who had tried to talk about what they perceived as many instances of unsafe practices or harassment related to race or gender.”
©2023 The Kansas City Star.
Visit at kansascity.com.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.