Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Perhaps no one knows the literal implications of this saying better than a firefighter, but Fort Smith residents questioning the city’s lack of diversity could say the same of its government.
Both of the city’s major Civil Service divisions have an irrefutable lack of diversity when it comes to representation in the African-American community. While approximately 9% of the city’s population is African-American, the combined percentages of both fire and police departments come nowhere close to reflecting it.
The issue is one in which Police Chief Kevin Lindsey is acutely aware. Out of 164 sworn officers, Lindsey employs only one African-American officer – Wendell Sampson, who is now suing the department.
While the fire department is not facing legal action related to alleged discrimination, it has a similar lack of diversity. The department has just three uniformed personnel out of 149 (and a total of 152 employees). However, the fire department is doing considerably better than the FSPD. Comparing percentages, the fire department’s 1.9% African American makeup is triple that of the police department’s 0.6%, but both register far below the demographic, according to the last U.S. Census.
Assistant Fire Chief Phil Christensen – speaking in place of Fire Chief Mike Richards, who retired in October 2015 – said the last African-American to be promoted in the department was in June 2014. Christensen admitted the department does not “seek out” African-Americans as part of the application process.
“It’s not even on our application,” he said. “We have, just off the top of my head, a couple, maybe, a year that apply. When that application is signed by the Civil Service Commission, it’s only valid for one year. So the applicants that apply, if they don’t get hired, have to go through the entire process again. As far as African-Americans, I know we had one last year or the year before last. He dropped out, and I don’t know why. He’d made it through the written evaluation, made it through the physical agility, and I don’t know if it was that he didn’t show up for the Civil Service interview or the Fire Chief’s interview. I don’t remember now.”
Christensen said applications are down significantly for the fire department overall, from highs of between 180 and 200 applications annually to just 60 in 2014. When asked why the decline, he simply stated, “Pay.”
Sampson’s lawsuit points out that Fort Smith hasn’t hired an African-American police officer since 1995 and hasn’t promoted an African American since 1988. He is suing the city for “discrimination in employment and promotion.” The filing from attorney Matthew Campbell on behalf of Sampson is seeking “full back pay as the result of the discriminatory failure to promote Plaintiff and his subsequent demotion/transfer, …”
Further, the lawsuit alleges that Sampson is a “victim of racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.” According to the complaint, Sampson was hired by the department on Sept. 25, 1995, and is only the 10th black officer in the department’s history.
“In over twenty years since Plaintiff was hired, the FSPD has not hired another African-American officer, despite multiple African-American candidates’ applying and meeting the necessary qualifications for being hired,” Campbell noted in the suit.
Campbell told Talk Business & Politics that it wasn’t clear what the exact number of African-American applicants was in the last two decades, “but that will certainly come out in discovery.”
“We do know of at least two recent applicants who passed the objective portions of the application process, but somehow failed other, subjective portions,” he added.
To the police issue, Chief Kevin Lindsey said in comments to Talk Business & Politics that African-American candidates with the skills needed by the department are often able to land higher-paying jobs elsewhere. He also said the department’s primary recruitment area around Sebastian County limits the pool of qualified minority applicants. But he also stressed that Fort Smith’s problem is a part of a bigger issue.
“Fort Smith is not unique in seeking out African-American officers. There are departments all over the United States that are having the same problem,” Lindsey said.
Fort Smith has some unique questions to address on race, though. Until recently, the city had one African-American department head, T. Baridi Nkokheli, but he was fired earlier this week after 10 years of service. Nkokheli plans to file a lawsuit and discrimination complaint against the city.
Speaking in reference to Nkokheli’s termination, three Fort Smith Board members acknowledged the city has a diversity problem when it comes to representation in city government. Ward 1 Director Keith Lau said he had “on numerous occasions (said) that I didn’t think our workforce was indicative of the demographics of the city of Fort Smith, and I stand by that.” At-Large Director Don Hutchings agreed, noting he was “very interested in getting more African-American police officers.”
Ward 2 Director André Good, the city’s only African-American Board member, said there was a “poor representation of minorities throughout the whole city of Fort Smith.” He also believed the firing of Nkokheli, “founded or not … [is] going to be viewed as the same situation, as discrimination. It’s going to be blocked in there together” with the lack of diversity and Sampson’s lawsuit.