NAACP calling for Norwalk fire chief’s head

Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy talks to the public at the December Mayor’s Night Out in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s past time for Norwalk Fire Chief Denis McCarthy to go according to the Norwalk branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in announcing a call for McCarthy’s resignation.

NAACP Norwalk branch First Vice President Andre Williams said the NAACP is going public now because promises were made and not kept.

“During the election, we were made some promises that after certain things transpired (McCarthy) wouldn’t be here. That didn’t take place,” Williams said.

The promises also included the termination of then-Personnel Director James Haselkamp and Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord, Williams said. Haselkamp resigned shortly after the election. There has been no public move to oust Alvord.

According to his contract, McCarthy serves at the pleasure of the mayor, but requires a 90-day notice before his hiring anniversary date for removal.

Williams said he could not elaborate on the complaints against Alvord because he has no knowledge of DPW inner workings. Williams, a former firefighter who was dismissed in 2009 after failing to complete required rehabilitation after a series of incidents, had plenty to say about McCarthy. (Minutes of the meeting at which Williams was dismissed are attached at the end of the article.)

This is the second time in just over a year Williams has publicly called for McCarthy’s ouster. The first, in April 2013, was in an interview in which Williams and retired firefighter Gregory DeValda complained about the chief’s record on race relations and minority hiring.

The letter that Williams shared Monday carries the NAACP letterhead. The letter states that there was a meeting recently in Mayor Harry Rilling’s office that included NAACP leaders and McCarthy. NAACP leaders were not happy with the outcome of part of that meeting, the letter states.

The meeting was six to eight weeks ago, Williams said. NancyOnNorwalk will share details about that in a follow-up story after McCarthy has a chance to respond.

The letter states:

• “Over the years the NAACP has received numerous complaints regarding Chief McCarthy’s disparaging remarks and prejudicial behavior regarding African American firefighters. His words and actions, including his latest comments at the (first Mayor’s Night Out) at City Hall inferring [sic] African American candidates can’t compete in the entry level exam for the fire department, have shown a pattern of a lack of respect towards the black community as a whole.”

• “The former city administration, and now the current administration, including the fire commissioners and Common Council members, have all the information they need to hold McCarthy accountable. There are glaring questions. Why has nothing been done? Why have those with documented and firsthand information on prejudicial behavior by Chief McCarthy not been interviewed? The community doesn’t want any more political rhetoric, broken promises or delay tactics by elected officials. We want answers and accountability … NOW!”

 • “It’s no secret that morale at the fire department is at an all-time low. The vote of no confidence delivered against McCarthy in 2009 by Firefighters Local 830 has never been rescinded.”

The letter states that McCarthy’s lack of leadership, disrespect and prejudicial treatment of black firefighters are the reasons the department has been unable to recruit sufficient black candidates, and says the NAACP “strongly opposes any renewal of (McCarthy’s) contract.”

Rilling was not available for comment Monday.

Williams quotes McCarthy as saying that “blacks are not smart enough to pass the written exam” to become firefighters in comments made at the December Mayor’s Night Out.

McCarthy’s comments in December were in response to questions by Williams. A recording is attached below. The female voice on the recording is that of Third Taxing District Commissioner Deb Goldstein.

Williams asked McCarthy to explain why there were 17 African American firefighters when he was hired by then-Mayor Alex Knopp and six now. The number will dwindle to four next year, Williams said.

“The issue of minority hiring is one that has been a significant challenge for the fire department,” McCarthy said. “We have seen the number of African American minorities go down over the last nine years. There was a significant recruitment effort and affirmative action in the mid-’80s that … allowed the department to hire a larger number of African Americans. Those employees are now retired.”

McCarthy said he has had a goal to recruit and hire members of the minority community since he began as Norwalk fire chief but there are obstacles.  Tests are given every two or three years, and the last two cycles were three years long, he said. This last test cycle featured the first recruitment officer in department history, he said.

“What we find is local residents are competing against professional test takers, for lack of a better term,” McCarthy said. “One of our last hires tested throughout New England, came from Burlington, VT, and no fault of his own, he is looking and is driven to become a firefighter. So there is a lot of opportunity to hone your skills in test taking to become a firefighter. His seventh test, in the city of Norwalk, he came out number one on our list. So these today are the candidates who are being attracted to a career in the fire service. It is very difficult to compete if you are an inner city kid without any exposure to the fire service, to take one test in the hopes that you have finish high enough to compete against candidates that are coming from across the country.”

Norwalk held training classes to help the locals “compete against professional test takers” and waived the fee if asked, McCarthy said.  Norwalk officials tried to keep the opportunity from being advertised nationally, but that isn’t really possible, McCarthy said.

“We have eliminated obstacles that have prevented, in other communities, minorities from participating,” McCarthy said. “We eliminated the EMT or MRT requirement which many of the neighboring communities require, so that we will provide that level of training when the employee gets on the job, because it was an impediment. Unless you are a volunteer firefighter, which traditionally come from the suburban communities, which are predominantly white, we were flooding the system because the prerequisites almost guaranteed that’s where the applicant pool was coming from.”

Norwalk also eliminated the need to get a physical certification before taking the written test, McCarthy said.

Williams said the comments were insulting.

“There are guys that take entry level exams throughout the whole state. Norwalk, Stamford, Bridgeport. They become good at test taking but there is no such thing as professional test takers,” Williams said. “He basically said that African Americans weren’t smart enough to pass the exam.”

Click on the arrow on the bar to hear the recording:

Fire Commission 02172009


26 responses to “NAACP calling for Norwalk fire chief’s head”

  1. RU4REAL

    It’s about time! This has been going on for some time and ALL the politicians know about it. Why are they supporting this guy, unless they agree with his actions. Time to step up or step down and not run for re-election! If you are silent you are just as guilty as this chief. Thank you NAACP and Mr. Williams for shedding light on the racist attitudes that exist at the top spot in the Norwalk Fire Department.

  2. One and Done.

    Oh my. This is a pretty serious allegation. The implication is that the mayor made promises before the election to terminate department heads for some consideration. Was that verbal or monetary support? Had to be something based on the accusations leveled here.
    One and Done.

  3. piberman

    The proper redress for discrimination charges are the courts, not the media. Woe be the day when mere charges made in the media to remove City officialls are sufficient to remove City officials.
    Chief McCarthy deserves the support of our community as a recognized professional leading a well recognized and distinguished Fire Department.

  4. EveT

    Rilling said in his campaign that, if elected, he would let city department heads know they either needed to perform their jobs well or else there’d be consequences. If there was some kind of back room deal where he promised to actually fire certain individuals, let’s hear exactly what that was.

    I do not see/hear where Denis McCarthy says “blacks are not smart enough to pass the written exam” — what he says is that competing with professional test takers from all around the country puts inner city applicants with limited experience at a disadvantage. The facts seem to indicate that Norwalk has made many adjustments in the qualification process to remove barriers for those applicants.

    All else being equal, it does seem preferable for Norwalk to be able to hire firefighters who’ve grown up here and know the city. But isn’t it more important for firefighters to be experts in preventing and extinguishing fires than to include a certain percentage of one racial group or another?

  5. Bill

    Former firefighter and convicted criminal wants to see his ex-boss fired because he used poor judgement and lost his job, so he is now playing the race card. I heard nothing racist in McCarthy’s answer. Sad to see the race card played again in Norwalk.

  6. Anonymous

    Sounds like the mayor has some explaining to do?

  7. LWitherspoon

    Candidate Rilling promised the NAACP and/or disgruntled firefighters that he would dismiss Mssrs. Haselkamp, McCarthy, and Alvord. A shocking and disturbing revelation by NoN. Congratulations on a big scoop.
    What support did Candidate Rilling receive from the NAACP and/or disgruntled firefighters? Were there individual campaign contributions or an endorsement? The firefighters union endorsed Rilling for mayor. Didn’t Candidate Rilling state during the campaign that he made no promises to groups that endorsed him? Unless there’s something I’m missing, the statement by Mr. Williams directly contradicts Candidate Rilling’s claim.
    When Mr. Williams says “we”, who does he mean? The NAACP, disgruntled firefighters, or another group?
    I hope Mayor Rilling’s response to Mr. Williams’s claims will be the subject of a follow-up article by NoN. If the Mayor made promises to specific groups during the campaign, lied about them in public statements, and then broke those same promises, we deserve to know. I seem to recall a Mayoral press conference about transparency a few months back. Is transparency something the Mayor intends to practice, or was that just a lot of talk?

  8. Norwalk Voter

    Everyone involved in this sensitive issue knows that removing a department head is a process and that some hiring contracts are different from others. Let the Mayor do his job. Does Mr. Williams have a personal agenda? If I recall, he was removed from the NFD, by a lengthy process.

    By pushing the Mayor and the City in this way, he is working against his own goals. Let the Mayor work these issues through the proper channels and let’s not place him in an untenable position. Mr. Williams is inviting a law suit by his words. This is no way to manage a city, no way to accomplish Mr. Williams goals.

    There is no dispute that minority hiring in the department needs to be increased and there are ways to make this happen. Mr. Williams, please think before you box in an ally. Stop making demands and take a look at what is at stake. This is not about you. It is about a better, more diverse FD.

  9. Anonymous

    Making a back door deal with a thief? Vice President of the NAACP? Who would trust this guy? They made him a VP? He has an agenda. Doesn’t give the Mayor or the NAAP much credibility. Looking forward to the mayors response. I’m sure NON will follow up. We’ll see.

  10. Anonymous

    There seems to be a reduction in African Americans do to retirements? Sounds like they (African Americans) didn’t score high enough on the entry level tests to land a job? Why is that the Chiefs fault? Is somebody looking for a job who doesn’t deserve it? Is that what Mr. Williams is suggesting? What does he want the chief to do? What did the past administrations do?

  11. LWitherspoon

    I believe NoN looked into the question of removing department heads a short while ago and wasn’t able to learn which department heads are under contract, and for how long, and which serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. So much for transparency. Can it really be that every City employee’s salary is a matter of public record, published in the newspaper every year, but the City cannot reveal the existence of employment contracts or their duration?

  12. Facts

    There continues to be “disgruntle employees“ that are still very angry at their departure with the City, although they were terminated for reasonable cause not due to the color of their skin.

    In any position today there are minimum requirements when applying for any position. If someone is not able to meet those minimum requirements, then it’s up to the individual to develop his/her own individual skills, this is part of the hiring process, in addition to your education and work experience.

    We have plenty of resources in the City to assist anyone whom is looking to work for the City of Norwalk. My understanding is that Chief Denis McCarthy hired an existing employee (whom was African American) to assist in the recruitment and hiring process during this last go around of fire department hires. Obviously that is not mentioned in the article. How successful was that action??? The Mayor is working closely with the new Personnel Director to ensure that the City is conducting fair recruitment practices. We need to move forward with the new regime and allow time to correct problems. The problems were there before Denis McCarthy arrived; he has made a difference and although not perfect, he continues to increase the ethical standards of the department.

  13. Anonymous

    @ facts. Well said.

  14. Casey Smith

    This has been going on since Chief McCarthy arrived in Norwalk. Also I seem to remember there was a lengthy investigation the first time around and the Chief was exonerated. Mr. Williams was terminated, as someone already pointed out, after a lengthy legal process.
    The testing process is lengthy and there are several different compartments to it. No one in the department has control over who decides to take the test, no one has control over the results, since I believe they are done by a third party. And even if someone does make it through the testing portion, there is still the Academy.
    Frankly, I’m surprised that Atty. Crossman, who is the head of the NAACP would involve the organization in this kind of maneuver particularly since he is going to be challenging Judge DePanfils as Probate Judge. But, hey if the NAACP wants to push this, that’s their choice.

  15. Anonymous

    The NAACP promised Rilling their support if he fired certain individuals. Unhappy with the political promises made, they decide to go public with the backdoor deal. With the comments Mr. Williams made regarding the fire chief, are there any grounds for a lawsuit? Was the mayor told about this prior to it going public and given a chance to act on this “shakedown?” Is this the transparency he was referring to during the campaign? As far as hiring more minorities, sounds like the one in charge of doing this recruitment should be FIRED! Was he paid to do this recruiting? If so, the city should DEMAND a refund!

  16. Broderick I. Sawyer

    Anyone interested in finding out precisely what I did as the most recent African-American recruitment officer can simply contact me at the fire department.

    I will tell you this: a lot of my efforts covered much of Norwalk and were on my own time, nights and weekends. I was accessible and visible during the entire process (ask around town).

    As a born and raised Norwalk resident, I feel obligated to do what I can for our city, whenever I can. Having been through the rigorous hiring process I have some idea of the difficulties involved.

    It is important to note in this conversation that in 1986 eight African Americans were hired; in 1994 one African American was hired; in 2001 I was the only African American hired (after thirteen years and three tests; and in 2002 one African American came on the job.

    If anyone has any ideas regarding recruitment please share them. In fact I can use a little help from my fellow residents during the next recruitment process.

  17. Anonymous

    “Over the years the NAACP has received numerous complaints regarding Chief McCarthy’s disparaging remarks and prejudicial behavior regarding African American firefighters.
    Really? By the same 4 people that have been fired or need to be, and I am not saying only minorities. Who can believe the chronic crying of racism by those fired for just cause, or current incompetent complainers who only have a job due to threats of more cries of racism. The same small group of idiots have brought more shame to the City of Norwalk by false accusations and hiding behind threats of more racism than anything in the past. And a token promotion does not make someone competent no matter what title he wants on his business card! The city bends over backwards to turn a blind eye to the insubordination in the workplace and abuse of their position to get their kids into jobs around the city, Why? To prevent more trash articles like this… Nancy fits right in on this trash. Your reporting is a disgrace, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    1. Mark Chapman


      This anonymous is apparently not the same anonymous that commented earlier on this thread. It is unfortunate that someone with such strong opinions about someone who puts his or her name to everything they write can’t even come up with an original screen name to hide behind. It is also unfortunate that one feels that a news outlet should be ashamed of reporting news because it makes someone uncomfortable and angry. I guess that’s what Cable TV Pander News has done to some people.

  18. Bill

    Aside from questions of Rilling about these so called “promises”, I would like to ask the NAACP why they promote convicted criminals as officers in their organization? Surely there are better qualified people to hold these roles, no?

  19. Anonymous

    1 in 94′ and 1 in 2001′ and 2002′? Sounds like the previous chiefs (including Sandy) failed, yet you continue to blame this on McCarthy? Are you listening to what you guys are saying or just going along with the hidden agenda?

  20. Corrine Weston

    Sad, this is such a missed opportunity; the City of Norwalk has removed a lot of obstacles for our youth to be able to compete. I believe the NAACP should be recruiting local minority, help them prepare for the test and then no one can say that we were given anything, but that it was earned.

  21. Suzanne

    After reading this article, listening to the audio and reading the meeting minutes, one must ask what the motives of Mr. Williams really are. He was terminated for not completing his exam, that is, completing his rehabilitation for employment in a timely manner.

    There is a tough exam to become a firefighter and I would hope that would be true. As a Norwalk citizen, I would only want the best, most competent persons as firefighters. The exam process sounds like a “barrier to entry” just like the SAT’s to university or the LSAT to law school.

    This process should not be “watered down” for any group but, rather, all groups should have to approach these exams equally. Affirmative action implies that assistance is needed to given racial groups because they do not have the level of competency required to take a tough exam. This seems an unseemly assumption at best.

    Chief McCarthy pointed out, among many other things, that Hispanics were well-represented in the department (I don’t believe numbers were given.) What about Asians? East Indians? Other racial groups? Are these groups worth fighting for as well, or necessary to fight for?

    Why isn’t Mr. Williams fighting for the greater education and competency of African Americans to pass the test to become fire fighters? Is Mr. Williams participating in the recruitment efforts to support his community? Is Mr. Williams simply after “the head” as so indelicately put in the headline above, of Chief McCarthy? Are there other African American firefighters that feel discriminated against in Norwalk that are willing to speak up in support of Mr. Williams’, I hope, factual views as opposed to emotional, reactive ones?

    Something about this is just not right: it feels personal and, given the circumstances under which Mr. Williams was terminated as explained in the Meeting Minutes (link above), perhaps it is.

  22. Broderick I. Sawyer

    We must keep in mind that Norwalk is a wonderfully diverse community, so it is vital to have a diverse municipal workforce.

    @ Corrine, the Norwalk Fire Department offered a test taking prep course prior to the last hiring test.

    @ Suzanne, the fire department has four Latino firefighters.

    It sounds as if you get my point Anonymous, you can’t blame one person, it has been coming to this for awhile, I can clear up a couple of things while I’m at it.

    There was no promotion to a recruitment position, the Chief asked if I would help and I said yes, nothing more nothing less. As I stated previously, I have a stake in what happens in my hometown.

    As for the business cards, the idea was to make it easier for candidates to make contact with the correct fire personnel during the recruitment/testing process if they had questions.

    Finally, I think everyone should wait and see if more facts come out before passing judgment on anyone.

  23. Casey Smith

    @ Anonymous
    “To prevent more trash articles like this… Nancy fits right in on this trash. Your reporting is a disgrace, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
    Actually, I’m glad NON included this article. It’s important that the residents of Norwalk be aware of this issue. Some important facts have been stated:
    Broderick Sawyer pointed out “in 1986 eight African Americans were hired; in 1994 one African American was hired; in 2001 I was the only African American hired (after thirteen years and three tests); and in 2002 one African American came on the job. For the record, during the time span of 1986 through 2002, the Fire Chief was James Verda. He retired in 2004 and Sandford Anderson was chosen. Bill Collins was mayor in 1986, Frank Esposito was mayor in 1994, and Alex Knopp in 2001. Following Anderson’s retirement in 2005, Denis McCarthy was hired and almost immediately accused of racism.
    I’m just not seeing a pattern here, other than the fact that the class of black firefighters that were hired in 1986 are quickly approaching their 30 years of service.
    Also, NON has posted the minutes of the meeting in 2009 and there were two lawyers present: someone from Shipman and Goodwin, a heavy weight Hartford law firm, and Corporation Counsel. That information, while available to anyone on the City website is particularly helpful here. It’s pretty clear from the statements made by the Commissioners that Mr. Williams had been given a second chance and blew it.
    And finally, NON has the audio of the statements that Chief McCarthy made. Once again, that’s something the average resident would think to access, even if it is part of the public record. But here it is, for anyone who cares to listen to it.
    Is this comfortable for Chief McCarthy? I don’t think so. He probably wishing it would all just go away, but it won’t as long as these types of accusations continue to be made. However, it’s only fair to him that ALL the facts be brought out, as NON has done. Read the minutes, listen to the audio, consider who was doing the recruiting and how hard he had to work to make the grade to be hired. It puts everything in a different light.
    I can’t speak to whether any back room deals that might have been made between the NAACP and the Mayor. I would like to believe that the Mayor has more class and smarts than to do such a foolish thing, but I don’t know.
    So, no – I don’t think that NON’s reporting is a disgrace and I don’t think they should be “ashamed” of themselves. As a matter of fact, I think it’s a rather good job.

  24. spanner

    Wow so far its all been about black and white.Have a professional arm of firefighting come in and do an audit of fire department.Its not bad enough the love between the fire and police has hit a all time low.Maybe lending some respect to the police department would be a great start.

    An audit would help the taxpayers understand what the department needs over McCarthy’s wish list.What equipment will need replacing and what the city needed yesterday.

    Having the Rowyaton station manned 24 hours a day is long overdue.Whats McCarthys thought on this?

  25. M. Murray’s

    I would think that a better recruiting effort would be to go to colleges and get minority college graduates and minority firefighters from other areas to apply for Norwalk. Let’s focus on getting the most qualified minority candidates to come to Norwalk to take the test. Don’t limit ourselves to a small pool of candidates. Expand the pool to higher educated and already qualified candidates, and they will perform well on the entrance exams.

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