Broadcast slurs lead to threats, calls for change

/ Source: The Associated Press

A string of racial slurs broadcast over Chicago’s fire department radios has City Hall in an uproar, and the mayor is calling on firefighters to break their silence and identify the culprits.

City Council members, meanwhile, are demanding reforms to end what they say is a culture of racism in the department.

Amid the controversy, a black fire battalion chief received a death threat, and an outspoken black alderman said Wednesday that he, too, had been warned against criticizing the department.

At least five racial slurs have been heard over the department’s radios since February. The firefighter accused of making the first slur Feb. 2 was given a 90-day suspension and was transferred. The department’s internal affairs division is investigating the other slurs.

On Tuesday, Mayor Richard M. Daley called those responsible “cowards,” and urged firefighters to identify the offenders “because this is not good for their profession.”

Jim McNally, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said he doubts the plea will help because the offenders probably were alone when they made the comments.

Asked whether the offenders should be fired, McNally said, “If anybody is doing any of these things intentionally, maliciously and they are members of the department, they may be too stupid to be on the job.”

At a City Council meeting Wednesday, Alderwoman Freddrenna Lyle proposed the city create a citizens’ oversight board for the fire department, similar to the city’s police citizens review board. The mayor called it a good idea.

“I think there’s a family atmosphere that makes it almost incestual,” Lyle said. “We want to change the whole attitude in the department.”

Alderman Ed Smith received an anonymous postcard Monday that read: “When the riot you are trying to start begins you better make sure all the fire fighters around your house are black — so you get the flames out.”

And Alderwoman Emma Mitts said she received racist voice mails after demanding the transfer of a firefighter accused of a racist comment.

In addition, Battalion Chief Nicholas Russell, president of the African American Fire Fighters League of Chicago, recently received a threat that talked about a battalion chief being shot and left in a shallow grave, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, citing unidentified sources.

The department has a history of racial issues and court intervention.

The federal government sued over alleged discriminatory hiring and promotion in 1973, a time when blacks and Hispanics made up fewer than 5 percent of the uniformed employees. Court orders settling the case required Chicago to hire and promote more minorities.

Today, 948 of the 4,896 city firefighters and paramedics are black and 510 are Hispanic. Blacks account for 16 of 107 battalion chiefs, 26 of 182 captains, and 94 of 594 lieutenants.

More recently, seven firefighters were dismissed and 21 suspended after a video surfaced in 1997 showing them drinking and using racial slurs at a firehouse party. An arbitrator later reversed the punishment, saying the city brought the charges too late.