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Black firefighters want commitment to racial diversity

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet Staff
Saturday October 20, 2001

A group of Berkeley firefighters are charging the fire department’s chief, Reginald Garcia, has not done enough to promote racial diversity within the department. 

In a letter sent to elected officials and the press Tuesday, Capt. Wayne Dismuke, the president of the Berkeley Black Firefighters Association, claimed that a climate of racial discrimination exists in the Berkeley Fire Department. 

“There is an attitude and a policy being expressed by the current Berkeley Fire Department administration of ‘white only’ employment,” wrote Dismuke. “We have tried on several occasions to express our concerns to the current Fire Department administration, only to find that (they) have not received a positive response.” 

In an interview Friday, Dismuke, who joined the department in 1967, said the Association decided to make their complaint public after Garcia allegedly misled him about new hires during a telephone call. 

Dismuke said Garcia called him about six weeks ago to say the department planned to hire six new firefighters in the beginning of October. He said he was surprised when the department actually hired 10 new firefighters – none of them African-Americans.  

“What he told me he was going to do, he didn’t do,” Dismuke said.  

Dismuke said there were African-American candidates on the hiring list when the 10 new firefighters were selected. 

Dismuke said Garcia’s predecessor, Gary Cates, “understood our concerns” and addressed them.  

He said Garcia’s legacy could be discerned by his hiring record. Since he took over the department in 1997, Dismuke said Garcia has hired 41 new employees, three of whom were African-American. 

“He’s the kind of guy we feel we can’t really work with,” Dismuke said. “He been here four years and he hasn’t helped the problem – he’s just exacerbated it.” 

Garcia could not be reached for comment Friday. 

Part of the problem, Dismuke said, is Garcia has not given the Association details about what the department looks for when recruiting new hires. If the Association had guidelines for new hires, Dismuke said, they could actively recruit African-American candidates for new positions.  

“African-American candidates are a commodity,” Dismuke said. “There’s not very many of them out there, and we should be actively recruiting them. 

“This is the kind of thing they advocate in Berkeley, but they’re not practicing what they preach here.” 

Dismuke, now the longest-serving firefighter in the department, was himself, the product of an affirmative action campaign. He was one of six firefighters recruited by the BFD in 1967, at a time, according to a document on the department’s Web site, when “efforts to increase the diversity of the department became a priority.” 

Dismuke said he has taken his concerns to City Manager Weldon Rucker, but was not satisfied by his response so far. 

“The city manager said he was ‘sympathetic’ to our concerns,” Dismuke said. “Unfortunately, sympathy has not translated into action.” 

Rucker and BFD spokesman Dave Orth could not be reached for comment.