Ray Counce has served as a firefighter at the Kansas City Fire Department for a little over 10 years and could tell you countless stories of racism and discrimination at the department.
“There’s so many things that have happened, where do you start?” Counce said.
At a station with just one other Black firefighter, Counce said management’s treatment of Black firefighters versus White firefighters was much different.
“I’ve heard about instances of White firefighters throwing around racial slurs,” Counce said. “It’s so many things that go on in this department that you don’t think of when you apply for a job like this.”
The Kansas City Star released a year-long investigation looking into rampant racial discrimination and lack of diversity in KCFD. They found stories similar to Counce’s, including a White firefighter throwing a rope around a Black firefighter’s neck, and fellow firefighters abandoning a Black firefighter under a collapsing wall.
“I think the reason why it's coming to light now is people are tired of it. You’ve got some of the younger guys in there that really won't stand for a lot of this stuff,” Counce said. “They want a change because they see the injustices, they’re blatant and in your face and it’s not fair.”
After the investigation was revealed, city officials demanded accountability in the department at a city council meeting Dec. 10. At the meeting, Fire Chief Donna Lake also addressed the racial discrimination and how the department is improving its minority recruitment efforts.
“While, what I represent is important to young women who may consider joining this profession, it is equally important to the young people of color, that they see representation of Black, Latinx and other groups within our ranks and know that they are strongly sought, fully welcomed and distinctly valued as members of this service,” said Lake, who is the first female fire chief at KCFD. “It is my responsibility to ensure that this commitment is kept in every corner of this organization, and respected in every aspect of our work.”
Lake said their current cadet class is the most diverse class they’ve ever had, but even those numbers are concerning. Out of the 33 students in the class, 45% are people of color or women, but there are only six Black students.
But the Kansas City Star discovered unfair, racially biased promotions and placements, creating overwhelmingly White stations and ranks.
Out of 210 captains, 20 are Black. Out of 32 battalion chiefs, two are Black, and out of the seven deputy chiefs, one is Black. In addition, less than 10% of the more than 1,200 firefighters are women.
Counce has seen it himself. The firefighters working at inner-city stations are predominately White, which he said is a result of the “Good Ol’ Boy” system within the department.
“When you’re a kid or adult in the inner city, all you see is White firefighters,” Counce said. “It’s so hard to get into those stations and I would have loved to work in those stations because I know the community in those areas.”
Although the department has tried recruiting in a number of different ways to improve those numbers, like through KCPS, offering mentoring with current firefighters, opportunities for high school students to receive an EMS license and scholarship opportunities, Lake said recruitment has remained a challenge.
Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw said the numbers were unacceptable and that the fire department should reflect the community it serves. “We need out of the box thinking to increase diversity (at KCFD),” she said.
Brian Platt, the new city manager who began work this week despite accusations against him of racial discrimination at his previous job as the Jersey City, New Jersey, business administrator, created a six-point plan for KCFD to address the discrimination and the lack of diversity.
The plan includes full investigations into all of the accusations from the article, the development of a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviors, allocating more resources to expand diversity recruitment and retention efforts, prevention of retribution or retaliation to those filing complaints, and the creation of a new equity and diversity officer to report directly to the city manager to oversee the implementation and compliance of the plan.
Despite the department’s new plan, Counce said he has not heard anything from his station addressing the investigation or the new changes, making him feel not too optimistic that the environment will change.
“I wish that by now someone in management would address the problem, but I think they’re waiting for it to blow over and then it’ll be business as usual,” Counce said. “I have no faith that the department will make any real changes.”