A federal class action lawsuit has been filed by veteran D.C. firefighters, alleging racism and discrimination in the department.
Nearly 40 firefighters have joined in the lawsuit saying they have been disciplined, treated unfairly, denied a promotion or subjected to a hostile work environment based on race.
Lawyers say as many as 1,000 firefighters may sign on. Some have been with the department for a quarter century. On Friday, they are leveling serious allegations of racism against Fire Chief Dennis Rubin and his top brass.
Veteran firefighters say since 2007 and under the leadership of Chief Rubin, they have experienced institutional racism in the department.
"It’s a hurting feeling because I felt years ago, our department was heading in the right direction,” said Captain Patrick Banks of D.C. Fire and EMS. “There was a lot of unity among the firefighters. I felt like over the last few years, we've lost that and we're here in an effort to try and regain that."
According to the 30-page lawsuit, black firefighters work in a hostile work environment where whites are disproportionately promoted while blacks are being punished. The lawsuit details more than 30 specific incidents.
Prominent employment lawyer Donna Rucker says the lawsuit lays out a pattern of discrimination inside the D.C. Fire Department dating back to 2007.
"We're talking race discrimination. What I hope can get accomplished is that we have an opportunity to learn why there seems to be this great disparity between the discipline and the treatment of firefighters who are African Americans receive," said Rucker.
For example, according to the lawsuit, a black firefighter with 26 years experience was found guilty of sexual harassment by the department after making a single remark to a co-worker. He was forced to resign.
By contrast, a white firefighter who admitted to e-mailing a picture of his private parts to a co-worker was found innocent of sexual harassment. He was eventually transferred to a higher position.
"Blacks in particular aren't getting a fair shot at getting a job on here,” said Lt. Gary Wiggins of D.C. Fire and EMS. “The discrimination that we see or disparities that we see stem from recruitment all the way up to discipline and promotions.”
"I've just seen other cases where cases have been handled differently, punishments have been handled differently and cases where’s there been no punishment handed down at all," said Lt. Jerry Burton of D.C. Fire and EMS.
Chief Rubin had no comment Friday about the lawsuit.
D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Pete Piringer would only say, "The department is an equal opportunity employer and we don't discriminate."
Piringer would not elaborate on policies in place to prevent discrimination within D.C. Fire and EMS.