Cleveland Safety Committee Wants More Diversity In Public Safety Department

Cleveland City Hall
Members of City Council's Safety Committee questioned representatives from the divisions of fire and police, as well as other internal departments, about efforts to increase diversity. [Matt Richmond / ideastream]

Department of Public Safety officials faced questions about a lack of diversity within the divisions of fire and police form Cleveland City Council Safety Committee members this week during a presentation on hiring practices across police, fire and other departments.

“It is important to note as we discuss staffing public safety with folks who represent the community that we cannot make hiring decisions based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender,” Director Karrie Howard said Thursday. “We cannot go out and hire all one race. That is not a Cleveland policy, that’s constitutional law.”

Even with equal opportunity law in place, argued Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, the city seems to have fallen behind its counterparts on diversity in public safety forces.

“I would note that other cities seem to have found a way to deal with those things, even other departments in Cleveland,” Cleveland said. “The police are more diverse than fire, in terms of racial minorities and also with respect to women. Other departments throughout that city do not seem to have that issue.”

Hiring managers look at lists of eligible candidates developed through the application and testing process and consider a candidate’s entire background, including education and work history, to make their decisions, Howard said. In order to have a more diverse staff, the department needs more diverse candidate pools, he said, and that has been a recent focus for the department.

“It insults my intelligence when I hear someone say ‘We hire someone based on their competence,’” said Councilman Basheer Jones. “What are you saying when you say, ‘We want to make sure we hire competent people,’ are you saying that Black and brown people are not competent? Are you saying that’s the reason why?”

Public safety departments need to improve the culture and work environment so minorities want to work there and apply, Jones said, and so they feel welcome when hired.

Efforts to increase minority staff take time and effort, said Chief of Police Calvin Williams. Cleveland’s Division of Police is working to get a more diverse pool of candidates, he said.

“It takes time to move the needle on diversity,” Williams said. “If our efforts were things we could have done 10, 15 years ago, we would see a lot more movement than we’ve seen in the last three or four years. But we’re working on it.”

Currently, about 24 percent of Cleveland’s police force is African American men, Williams said, including officers in the current training academy class. About 33 percent are classified as minority, he said.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled last year that Cleveland’s Division of Fire uses hiring practices that disadvantage women and people of color. The Cleveland Vanguards, a union representing local Black firefighters, claimed the division gave men’s equipment to women, required testing in areas that were difficult to access for inner-city residents and required an internet connection to fill out its application, putting low-income applicants at a disadvantage. The city refuted those claims.

Fire Chief Angelo Calvillo did not discuss the EEOC ruling during Thursday’s meeting. But officials did denounce rumors of an incoming class of 40 white male fire recruits. The most recent prospective class was delayed due to the pandemic. The next class is now expected for December or early 2021, Calvillo said, and could include as many as 80 recruits. Those recruits have not yet been selected.

“I am sensitive to the issues in regards to diversity,” Calvillo said. “I believe together as a team with our safety division and council and everyone involved, we’ll start seeing those numbers increase.”

The methods meant to increase diversity currently used by various city departments don’t seem to be working as effectively as they could, said Council President Kevin Kelley.

“I think we have to ask ourselves, is what we’re doing working, and is it working fast enough? Do we need a new plan or do we need to tweak what’s currently happening?” Kelley said. “The numbers speak for themselves. They point to a problem.”

Cleveland’s public safety departments may have good intent and want to improve, Kelley said, but those changes may not be coming quick enough.

The committee plans to follow up on plans to improve diversity again in the near future.

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