KCK discrimination verdict shows bias in firehouses is real, and must come to an end

The Kansas City Star Editorial Board
·3 min read

A 10-person jury in Kansas City, Kansas, has awarded more than $2.4 million in back pay and other compensation to a former Black firefighter they found to have been a victim of workplace discrimination.

The decision will anger and frustrate most KCK residents and taxpayers. It should. The trial, held in federal court, provided yet more evidence that racism and discrimination is embedded in the fire service, and must be eradicated.

The case involved former fire department employee Jyan Harris, who claimed he was dismissed after complaining about ongoing discrimination in the department. The decision vindicates his point of view.

“Hopefully now it shows them that you can’t do people like that,” Harris said after the verdict.

Much of the testimony revolved around record-keeping, and the arcane way firefighters trade shifts. The trial showed poor management, disagreement over basic facts, and disputed memories of meetings and statements.

But some witnesses described a bigger problem: a department rife with prejudice and unfair treatment.

Black firefighters were routinely moved from station to station, often ending up in a firehouse considered the “Black” station, the jury was told. Promotions were erratic. A former fire chief allegedly told city administrators Black people are afraid of fire, making it hard to recruit Black firefighters.

This all sounds distressingly familiar. It is now essential for the Unified Government to fully investigate claims of discrimination, root it out, and dismiss firefighters who resist a fully inclusive fire service.

In a statement Thursday, UG Mayor David Alvey — elected with the help of the city’s fire union — said the fire department has taken steps to improve its record on race. But “we can, we must, and we will do more,” he said.

Residents must hold Alvey and other commissioners to that standard. Lip service won’t do.

Unified Government County Administrator Doug Bach promised to examine racism in the department. “We are very concerned about the issues of bias and mistreatment our Black firefighters raised in testimony,” he said in a written statement.

Bach promised an “action plan” to address discriminatory behavior. A report is expected later this year.

These concerns must be the highest priority of the Unified Government. But it will also mean a major change in attitudes in firehouses, and potentially in the city’s politics, where firefighters have an oversized influence.

Last year The Star published extensive reporting on continuing discrimination in the Kansas City, Missouri, fire service. Black firefighters (and women) face bias in hiring, promotions and assignments.

Half of the city’s fire crews lacked a single Black firefighter last July, we reported. Ongoing discrimination has cost Kansas City taxpayers millions in lawsuit settlements.

That damage has now been felt by taxpayers across the river, in KCK.

Fire departments, and their unions, do a horrible job of finding minority and women applicants. Fire department jobs are seen too often as hereditary, passed from father to son.

That has to end. And firefighters must be the ones to end it.

This week’s verdict is costly financially, but it’s more than that. Wasting lives and careers for racial reasons hurts the entire community. Wyandotte County must work harder to eradicate systemic racism at its firehouses.