Department of Justice Initiates Inquiry into AFD

Fire department hiring woes continue

Department of Justice Initiates Inquiry into AFD

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday formally notified the city that its investigators will be looking into hiring practices at the Austin Fire Department, acting on allegations that hiring procedures discriminate against minorities.

According to the letter, to City Attorney Karen Kennard, the DOJ has received "information indicating that the [AFD] may be engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against Hispanics and African Americans," in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.*

Title VII prohibits an employer from intentional discrimination as well as from using a "neutral employment practice that results in a disparate impact" on a person based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, "unless such practice is 'job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity,'" and there is no other practice that would "result in less disparate impact and equally serve the employer's legitimate interests," reads the letter, penned by the chief of the DOJ's employment litigation section.

At issue is whether the department's procedures and testing for firefighter candidates is structured such that it discriminates against minority candidates. The department has long struggled with how to increase minority and female firefighters among its ranks without compromising standards. Indeed, at issue in part is how to weight the exam such that every portion counts, but so that no single portion overshadows the other – that is, for example, how much should the results of a cognitive exam count versus how much for oral interviews.

Despite years – really, decades – of dealing with this issue, the AFD is still overwhelmingly male (94%), and white (79%). Fifteen-percent of sworn personnel are Hispanic, while just 5% are African American, according to current department demographics.

In an April 23 memo, AFD Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr told department personnel that she views the investigation "not as a condemnation of our practices, but rather an opportunity," she wrote. "Our goal has always been, and remains, to have fair and impartial employment practices for all applicants and employees of the [AFD]."

*The previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the Voting Rights Act. We regret the error.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Austin Fire Department
Fire Chief Goes Easy on Accused Harasser
Fire Chief Goes Easy on Accused Harasser
Wrist-slap for captain’s rude, sexist “horseplay”

Nina Hernandez, Feb. 9, 2019

More AFD
One of These People Will Be Your New Chief
One of These People Will Be Your New Chief
CM Ott schedules meet-and-greet for residents to meet AFD chief finalists

Jordan Smith, Oct. 29, 2008

Ott Trims List From 38 to Eight...Err, Seven
Ott Trims List From 38 to Eight...Err, Seven
Ott names finalists for Austin Fire Dept. chief

Jordan Smith, Oct. 6, 2008

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014


Department of Justice, Voting Rights Act, Austin Fire Department, AFD, Rhoda Mae Kerr, law, investigation, federal investigation

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle