Kansas City firefighter group presents plan to address racism, discrimination in department

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A group of Kansas City firefighters presented a plan to the city council to address decades of what they say is racism and discrimination in the department.

In 1960, Edward Wilson became the first Black chief of the Kansas City Fire Department. Decades later, he’s still the only one.

“We are tired and frustrated with business as usual with the fire department,” said Sylvia Brown, firefighter and president of EFFECT. “This is not a new issue. This is why we came before council to get movement. We’re tired of dialogues that’s going nowhere.”

Brown heads EFFECT, which stands for Equality for Firefighters through Education, Community Service and Training. It’s the local affiliation of International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

The group said the exam for department promotions is judged more favorably for white applicants. They also said many members face racism from colleagues. Several members stood behind her as she detailed steps the Kansas City Council could take to address decades of discrimination and racism that have led to millions of dollars in lawsuits. 

Brown outlined four action items she’d like to see, including a Zero-Tolerance Discrimination Policy that would have led to a white cadet who tied a noose around a Black colleague’s neck being fired. Instead, the man accused of the racist act was allowed to resign.

The group would also like to see the department create a recruitment unit, a fire candidate employment preparation program and effective diversity, inclusion and equity training.

“We know we paid out several million dollars in discrimination lawsuits,” Councilman Brandon Ellington said. “I feel that the city has a dual obligation to ensure that we’re protecting taxpayer dollars and then also ensure that our departments are diversified.”

KCFD Chief Donna Lake said they are taking steps to address concerns of racism.

“At the end of the day, this is their place of employment,” Lake said. “And while we can’t change those hearts and minds, we can set the expectation of what your behavior at work is going to be.”

The chief said outside individuals have been reviewing the department’s policies to help ensure inclusivity. In the meantime, Brown said the community and the department will suffer if leaders fail to act.

“We are public servants and in public safety,” Brown said. “If you don’t have diversity in your department, then how can you serve the community?”

A spokesman from KCFD asked FOX4 to submit a formal request for the demographics of the department. The Kansas City Star has reported the department is 14% Black in a city with a 30% Black population.

Mayor Quinton Lucas expects some of the solutions for the concerns of racism and discrimination could be written into the latest collective bargaining agreement between KCFD and city leaders.

“I think when you see our next firefighter contract, you will see a much stronger approach to how we actually address these sorts of issues, how we’re actually making sure that when something bad happens we fix it,” Lucas said.

Lake acknowledged systemic racism in the department and said she will work to address the concerns.

“I think what we haven’t been good at is creating something that is sustainable over time to really fix the issues, and so that’s what we’re trying to work on,” Lake said.

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