Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's search for a new fire chief has been framed largely by well-publicized problems with the agency's 911 dispatch system and reports of delayed responses to life-and-death emergencies.
But another deep-rooted, if less noticed, challenge awaits the next chief: the continuing, costly legacy of race and sex discrimination in a uniformed force that remains overwhelmingly male and predominantly white.
Over the last year, payouts in bias-related lawsuits have climbed, the federal government has stepped up its response to employee discrimination complaints, and an internal City Hall battle has raged over voter-imposed reforms intended to combat misconduct in the ranks.
Last week, a Superior Court jury awarded $1.1 million to a black firefighter, Jabari S. Jumaane, who said he endured three decades of discrimination. The verdict followed payouts totaling $1.5 million in other bias cases for the budget year that ended in June.
Some of those escaped public notice in part because the City Council approved deals barring the accusers from publicizing their settlements. One case quietly resolved earlier this year included a $325,000 payment to the department's first black female firefighter, d'Lisa Davies. Davies alleged that she suffered firehouse discrimination over two decades.
As part of that settlement, the city agreed to have the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more closely monitor the department's anti-discrimination training program for firefighters and supervisors.
At the same time, a messy court fight has erupted over the powers of the LAFD's internal watchdog. The position, independent assessor, was created by voters in 2009 to audit the handling of misconduct complaints against LAFD employees.
Attorney Stephen E. Miller, the first person to hold the post, said city attorneys prevented him from doing his job by blocking access to firefighter personnel files. Last month, without explanation, Miller was fired by Garcetti's newly revamped Fire Commission.
Nana Gyamfi, a civil rights lawyer who represented Jumaane, Davies and others in discrimination cases against the LAFD in recent years, welcomed the increased federal oversight, saying the department has failed to rid itself of a culture of bias against firefighters who aren't white men.
"The only time the Fire Department has made any change is when it's forced to make that change," she said. "It's never moved voluntarily in the direction of nondiscrimination."
Fire Department officials say a recent upswing in payouts stems from incidents that occurred years ago, and that they've made progress in curbing discriminatory conduct. "We always want to minimize the potential for recurrence," said Battalion Chief Armando Hogan, a department spokesman.
Garcetti has vowed to fight bias in the city's fire stations. "My priorities in bringing new leadership to the Fire Department are improving emergency response and bringing a much-needed change to the culture there," Garcetti said.
The roots of racial tension in the department run deep.
In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, black firefighters worked only at two South L.A. fire stations. That year, the city Fire Commission ordered Chief John Alderson to integrate the firehouses. When he refused, the commission suspended him for insubordination.
In 1972, when 95% of L.A. firefighters were white, the U.S. Justice Department sued the city, accusing it of discrimination in its recruiting, hiring and promotion. Two years later, the city settled the case, agreeing to increase hiring of black, Latino and Asian firefighters.
More than 40 years later, the department's 3,200 firefighters are more diverse — 50% white, 31% Latino, 12% black and 7% Asian — and officials noted that the last four fire chiefs have been black. But the department doesn't yet reflect the city it serves — Los Angeles is 29% white, 49% Latino, 11% Asian and 10% black, according to the Census Bureau.
Some other cities have had more success hiring women, including Seattle, where almost 9% of firefighters are female, and San Diego, where nearly 8% are female. Nationwide, it is estimated 4% of firefighters are women.
For the first time in five years, the LAFD plans to form a class of new recruits next summer, but a spokesman said it was not yet clear how many women it would include.
In the Davies case, she alleged that department brass hindered her efforts to train and recruit more women to be firefighters. Federal fair employment regulators found Davies had been denied a transfer in retaliation for her protests against discrimination.