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Feds have investigated racism in KC fire department for 2 years. Why wasn’t public told?

The U.S. Department of Justice notified Kansas City in mid-2021 that it was investigating racial discrimination within the Kansas City Fire Department.

The public only became aware of the federal investigation two years later, when The Star revealed Wednesday that the Justice Department had for months been interviewing Black firefighters.

In an interview Friday, Mayor Quinton Lucas said officials held public discussions about race and gender discrimination within the fire department, which city leaders have tried to address. But he acknowledged the public was not made aware of the Justice Department investigation.

“I don’t think there was in any way an endeavor to hide that information from anyone,” Lucas told The Star.

City Attorney Matthew Gigliotti was notified of the probe in a July 2, 2021, letter from Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the agency’s Civil Rights Division.

The investigation, she wrote, would determine if the fire department engaged in “a pattern or practice” of discrimination against Black people in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Justice Department is separately investigating the Kansas City Police Department over its employment practices following a Star investigation in 2022 that found KCPD’s Black officers face racism from within. When KCPD was notified of the federal probe last year, then-Interim Police Chief Joseph Mabin released a statement about it the same morning.

“I am committed to ensuring every member experiences a safe and fair work environment and every applicant receives fair treatment throughout the hiring process,” Mabin said at the time.

It remains unclear who at City Hall knew about the Justice Department’s probe into the fire department. But when the city was alerted to it, the public was not informed.

Speaking from his office Friday, Lucas told The Star the police and fire situations were different.

Lucas believed the police department released a statement after a Justice Department letter about that probe was leaked, triggering a response from the force. In the case of the fire investigation, he said, there was “likely not a communication to an external party.”

Communications between the city’s attorney and City Council, he added, are confidential unless there is reason for disclosure. He noted he does not call a press conference every time the city is sued.

“I don’t think that there is a concern about trying to mask what is the substantive issue,” Lucas said.

On Friday, the city provided The Star the Justice Department’s letter announcing the KCFD probe after the newspaper had asked for it since Wednesday. In it, Clarke said the Justice Department had assigned a senior trial attorney to the investigation.

“Our investigation is based on publicly available information that suggests the KCFD may be engaged in hiring practices that discriminate against Black applicants for the position of entry-level firefighter, in promotional and assignment practices that discriminate against Black firefighters throughout the ranks and in maintaining a hostile work environment for Black firefighters throughout the ranks,” Clarke wrote.

KCFD letter of investigation by Ian Cummings on Scribd

The city was notified of the federal investigation about seven months after The Star published a series of stories in late 2020 detailing systemic racism, segregated fire stations, lack of promotions and sex discrimination within the department.

Lawyers for Battalion Chief Stephen Seals, who is Black, made the first publicly known reference to a federal investigation in a lawsuit filed last week. His attorneys said he was first contacted by the Justice Department in January 2022.

Early this year, weeks after a report assessing the culture within the department was released, DOJ investigators reached out to the city seeking additional information and the names of other individuals to interview, according to a senior city source whose office is involved in the matter.

Three Black firefighters told The Star this week that they were interviewed within the last year about racism they have faced within the fire service and their complaints of a hostile work environment. They named others who have been interviewed, as well.

Some people who were members of the council at the time recalled learning of the investigation in 2021, while others did not. Several did not return calls seeking comment.

Councilwoman Andrea Bough, 6th District At-Large, said she became aware of the investigation in 2021.

But former Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who represented the 4th District At-Large from 2015 until earlier this month, said she did not recall any “email or briefing” about it.

Former two-term Councilman Dan Fowler, who until this month represented the 2nd District, also said he could not recall being informed of it.

“The feds, in my experience, keep everything close to the vest until they’re ready to tell somebody,” said Fowler, who is a lawyer.

The Rev. Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, said the civil rights community was “not surprised” that city leaders knew about “this very important information” but did not share it.

“Our past protests and ongoing advocacy and education, we are pleased, have in some way been heard,” Howard said. “The lack of transparency, inaction, and complicity on the part of the city manager is the reason we have no confidence in his ability to address the scourge of racism in the KCFD and within the broader municipal government framework.”

In a statement, City Manager Brian Platt said since his first day in office, city leaders have worked to transparently improve conditions across departments, including KCFD.

“Over the past three years, we made substantial progress in creating a safer workplace for all employees and are committed to improving each year to come,” Platt said.

Since The Star’s investigation in 2020, the fire department has made strides toward making its ranks more inclusive, city officials said.

On his first day in office in December 2020, Platt emailed council members calling the behavior described in The Star “absolutely unacceptable” and vowed to take aggressive steps to “end discrimination and harassment” in city departments.

In May, the KCFD saw its largest and most diverse recruitment class yet, with 110 prospective firefighters. The department also conducted job fairs to diversify its ranks, created a mentorship program for new employees and hired a diversity officer.

But several current and former Black firefighters say little has changed. They are still subjected to poor treatment, limited promotional opportunities and fear of retaliation when they speak out.

Lucas acknowledged there is still concern among firefighters about assignments and promotions.

Mayors, city managers and other council members have come and gone over the years, he said, yet the problem persists.

“At a certain point one has to ask … ‘What is not changing?’” Lucas asked.

The Star’s Mike Hendricks contributed to this report.