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: