The Los Angeles Fire Department's Recruiting Process Has Some Big Problems
By Robert J. Lopez and Ben Welsh
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suspended the city's firefighter recruitment program Thursday amid concerns about mismanagement and nepotism, including new emails that show special recruitment workshops were organized for relatives of department insiders. "I have determined that the Fire Department's recruiting process is fatally flawed," the mayor said in a statement Thursday.
The action follows a Times report last month that thousands of candidates who passed a written test were excluded from consideration for a new training class because some of their paperwork wasn't received in the first 60 seconds of a filing period last spring. Nearly 25% of the 70 recruits eventually hired were related to LAFD firefighters.
Internal LAFD emails newly obtained by The Times show dozens of department officials were alerted last year that the paperwork, certifying that candidates had passed a physical fitness test, needed to arrive at the city in the first minutes of the filing period if applicants were to have a chance.
Another email discusses a coaching session for relatives of firefighters that was held at a city fire station. The captain who wrote the emails is the focus of a disciplinary investigation. He told The Times he also gave workshops to people not connected to the LAFD.
As part of Thursday's announcement, Garcetti said a new training class scheduled to begin later this year has been canceled. He also said Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. was being retained to conduct a thorough review of LAFD recruitment and hiring practices.
The screening process used for the first new class of LAFD recruits in five years has been criticized as arbitrary and unfair by unsuccessful candidates, City Council members and Interim Fire Chief James G. Featherstone. Critics say qualified applicants, including some with paramedic and firefighting experience, were passed over merely because they failed to meet the unannounced one-minute cutoff.
Officials say the class, which is 60% white and has just one woman, failed to increase diversity at an agency that has struggled to overcome a legacy of discrimination and bias complaints that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in legal payouts.
Garcetti has said the department needs to move more rapidly toward a decades-long goal of reflecting the population of city, which is 29% white.
The mayor's suspension of hiring was criticized by Capt. Frank Lima, president of the union representing rank-and-file LAFD members.
"We're very upset and we're very disappointed with the decision," he said, adding that the move would exacerbate firefighter staffing shortages. He called the internal investigation and the mayor's decision to suspend hiring "crazy" and "political."
The Fire Department declined to comment on the investigation. But documents obtained by The Times show the probe is focused on Capt. Johnny L. Green, a 24-year veteran who has been active in community organizations and mentored youths and new recruits for years.
Records show that the LAFD investigation was launched March 11, several days after Green spoke to The Times about his view of flaws in the hiring process.
Green declined to comment Thursday, citing the internal probe. But in the previous interview, he said he held at least four workshops, three of which were attended by members of the community. "That's what I do," Green said. "I help the community."
During the latest round of hiring, he said he gave workshops to about 75 applicants, including a few dozen LAFD relatives and friends. The workshops focused on interview skills and resume writing. Other department members assisted by participating in mock interview panels, Green said.
He also sent an email, forwarded by a department secretary to dozens of Fire Department members, announcing he would lead workshops at a West L.A. fire station for "LAFD cadets and family members of the LAFD only" to prepare candidates for in-person interviews. One Green email to LAFD members urged recipients to inform applicants they must submit proof they had passed the physical fitness exam to the city Personnel Department as quickly as possible after the filing window opened at 8 a.m. April 22. "Don't delay, they have to be ready to go. NO exceptions!!!!!!" he wrote on April 19. He also wrote that they expected to meet their quota of several hundred applicants within two minutes.
After a deluge of submissions on April 22, personnel officials quietly decided to extend interview invitations only to 965 applicants deemed to have submitted their paperwork electronically or in person before 8:01 a.m. Personnel officials have acknowledged they did not inform the public that such a cutoff would be used. Green said he passed along the two-minute warning because that's what applicants who took his workshops were talking about. He said he knew that a flood of email submissions would overload the city's computer system. "It was predictable," he said.
Fire Commissioner Jimmie Woods-Gray, a retired teacher, said she has known Green since he was a student in her South Los Angeles elementary school class. "I don't see Johnny doing anything that's underhanded," she said.
"He likes to help people. He is honest and has high integrity." Chief Featherstone said: "While these actions may have been conceived in good faith, the result was a recruiting and hiring process that was less than fair and impartial."
(c)2014 the Los Angeles Times