Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Race Once Again Rears Its Ugly Head in St. Louis

Promotion of Battalion Commander to Chief has STL African-American firefighters HOT!

St. Louis, MO (November 20, 2007) -- A veteran St. Louis firefighter is taking over as the city’s new Fire Chief, but during the initial stages of his term, Dennis Jenkerson may not be doing much firefighting. Instead, he'll be tending to an ongoing fight with African American members from his own department.

On Monday (11/17/07) St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that Jenkerson, a 50 year old Battalion Chief, is replacing ousted fire chief Sherman George. Jenkerson is a 28-year veteran of the department and ranked highest during testing for Deputy Chief.

You may recall that Sherman George was removed as Chief of Department after refusing to end an embargo on the promotion process. Even though a federal court ruled that the tests did not discriminate, George wasn't convinced that the testing procedure was fair.

To support his position to deny promotions, Chief George cited a pending federal lawsuit, which alleges that tests to fill the ranks of captain and battalion chief were biased against blacks. In anticipation of the civil suit, George, an African American, placed a freeze on promotions. In the meantime, dozens of fire officers continue to serve in an "acting" capacity without the accompanying pay increase.
Mayor Francis Slay ordered the Fire Chief to lift the freeze, but George refused to do so. On October 1st, Slay demoted George to Deputy Chief and appointed an interim chief, Deputy Chief Steven Kotraba, to run the 700 man department. After his demotion, Sherman George resigned leaving an ice-cold environment in St. Louis fire stations and heated debates in City Hall.

In this city made famous by beer and baseball, African-American members are calling foul. Many claim that Jenkerson was promoted because he is white -- and has a personal relationship with Mayor Slay.

Racial issues have long divided the department which until a generation or so ago continued to operate with segregated companies. The segregation of white and black firefighters continues to this day with two unions representing department members, one for black firefighters the other for white.

The St. Louis American, a well-read weekly targeting African-Americans in Missouri, questions whether Jenkerson, a Battalion Chief, was even eligible for such a promotion. The paper reported that the City Charter held that only Deputy Chief Officers could be promoted to the rank of CFD (Chief of Fire Department). Officials disagree, saying that the Charter clearly permits the appointment of Battalion Chiefs to the top position. (1)

One white fire official chastised the newspaper saying, “Apparently your organization can only see things in black and white as it chooses to support candidates based only on the color of skin, not character.”

With the Charter issue out of the way, African-American firefighters quickly launched another attack on Jenkerson, citing the fact that he is under investigation by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for using city-owned equipment to do work at a private home.

That investigation deals with misuse of firefighting personnel and equipment. The complaint claims that Jenkerson ordered an on-duty group of firefighters to cut away a diving board from the pool of Louis Hamilton, a campaign advisor for Mayor Francis G. Slay. Slay acknowledges that he ordered Chief Sherman George to have the work done, who in turn ordered Jenkerson to follow through. Jenkerson says that he was simply following the orders of a superior officer.

While black and white firefighters trade barbs, Jenkerson says that the first order of business for his administration will be to revamp the promotion process, “making it more open and transparent.” Jenkerson will receive help because the city is restoring the job of assistant chief, a post to be filled by one of the five men also vying to be fire chief. (2) Leading that short list is Deputy Chief Charles Coyle, a veteran firefighter who had been the pick for CFD by African-American firefighters. (3)

It is interesting to note that the St. Louis Fire Department was the first municipal department to hire African-American firefighters way back in 1921. The city's first black fire officer was Claude Johnston, who during his career was promoted to Captain and served as an acting Battalion Chief. (4) All of this took place at a time when FDNY was only recruiting the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants.

Is anyone surpirsed? The Fire Chief serves at the discretion of the Mayor and in St. Louis, like every other major US city, politics plays a key role as to who is chosen to lead the fire department. Were politics involved in the appointment of Dennis Jenkerson? Sure! Did racial issues play a role in Mayor Slay’s decision? Perhaps. Read the St. Louis American, because they have an interesting take.

But this much we know. Jenkerson scored highest on the promotional test, and in a world devoid of race and politics, he is fittingly the best man for the job of Chief.

A personal note:

As a former St. Louisan and volunteer firefighter, I rode along with the St. Louis Fire Department on 50 or so occasions. Most of my time was spent with the officers and crew of Squad 2, the heavy-rescue that covers the northern part of the city.

The atmosphere in the 2 company station was like that of any other. Black or white, the firefighters at Squad 2 and Engine 21 were members of a special family. If there was racial tension, I certainly never noticed it. When the gong sounded, the men and women of the St Louis Fire Department responded with military precision. In fact, the only complaint I’d ever heard was from hoseteams, who joked that squad members would work their way to firefront only to “steal the nozzle” from the Engine Company.

I credit former Chief Neil Svetanics for handling the racial situation in St. Louis in a pro-active manner by promoting several African-American deputy officers. By doing so, he gave individuals like Sherman George a taste of what it was like to run a big-city department.

In closing out this blog entry, I’d like to recognize Captain Vince Wright, Squad Company #2. Vince had served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret, returning to St. Louis to join the fire department. Vince was smart, articulate and a leader of men – he was also boisterous and had a flair for drama. I’m told by my friend Nick Morgan that Vince Wright passed away a few years ago, and my guess is that he’s probably serving with great firefighters like Ray Downey, Terry Patton, Joe Angelini and others aboard Heaven’s heavy-rescue. God bless you all.
(1) St. Louis American
(4) St. Louis Fire Department (History)


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