Chicago Fire Department makes progress, but not enough, toward ending racial, sexual discrimination

A Chicago Fire Department that remains 91% male and 64% white has made some, but not all, of the changes needed to stop sexual and racial discrimination and protect employees who complain about it from retaliation, a new report concluded Tuesday.

Last year, Chicago’s now-former Inspector General Joe Ferguson shined a glaring spotlight on the white male bastion of city government and demanded immediate changes in policy, training and employee protection.

The audit was accompanied by a survey in which 73 of all 285 respondents, both male and female — that’s 26% — reported experiencing sexual harassment “at least once” at CFD.

Even more troubling was the rate of sexual harassment of women. Out of 45 female survey respondents, 28 — 62% — reported being sexually harassed at CFD. The harassment included sexually suggestive remarks, open displays of sexually suggestive material, aggressive leering or staring.

On Tuesday, Acting Inspector General William Marback released a follow-up report analyzing the corrective actions taken by CFD over the last year under the leadership of Annette Holt, the first woman to serve as Chicago fire commissioner.

Of the five corrective actions recommended in Ferguson’s original audit, only one has been fully implemented: the suggestion that CFD create and implement “written guidelines instructing” Internal Affairs Division staff on “how to receive, process and refer complaints involving discrimination or sexual harassment” to the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Division.

Appointment of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer to focus on “issues of diversity, discrimination and sexual harassment” has been stymied. No funding for the position was included in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget.

The companion suggestion to “recruit a diverse applicant pool that reflects the racial make-up of Chicago” has been slowed by the fact that “CFD does not select new candidates every year.”

The recommendation to train Internal Affairs staff to handle complaints about discrimination and sexual harassment “in a trauma-informed manner” was characterized as “partially implemented.”

CFD has worked with the Chicago Police Department to “develop training on trauma-informed concepts for its IAD investigators.” But that training so far has focused on “applying those techniques to sexual harassment complaints.”

Two other recommendations were characterized as “substantially implemented.”

A “Core Values Statement” and a so-called “Honor Our House Initiative” was developed to “further protect members from acts of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation” in a way that acknowledges the unique challenges posed by the fact that “many members live together while at work,” the report states.

Also, during the initial audit, the Fire Department “changed their complaint procedures to provide more anonymity for members making complaints,” the report states.

“We urge the department to fully implement a CFD-specific training on discrimination and sexual harassment to supplement the EEO training its members already receive,” Marback wrote in a letter that accompanied the follow-up report.

“Once fully-implemented, [the Office of the Inspector General] believes the corrective actions reported by CFD may reasonably be expected to resolve he core finding noted in the audit.”

The Chicago Fire Department’s long, documented history of discrimination and racist incidents has triggered a parade of lawsuits, multi-million-dollar settlements, policy changes and back pay.

In 2013, Chicago spent nearly $2 million — plus $1.7 million in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of upper body strength that City Hall has now scrapped.

Three years later, a dozen women accused the Chicago Fire Department of devising two new physical agility tests that were equally biased against women.

In 2014, a payroll auditor for CFD filed a federal lawsuit against the city — armed with a finding of discrimination by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that upheld her sexual harassment charge against former Fire Commissioner John Brooks.

Four years later, five female paramedics filed a federal lawsuit accusing their superiors of sexual harassment and alleging the fire department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers.”

Allegations of sexual discrimination also forced CFD to change its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers.

Even with that history, quotes attributed to survey respondents were troubling.

One female employee complained: “Women are treated like garbage.” Yet another respondent reported being forced to endure “racist photos and language at predominately white” firehouses.

Also in the report: instances of men relieving themselves with the door open; sleeping arrangements where women were sent to undesirable areas of the firehouse; and a refusal to assist with equipment and moving victims.

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