(Editor’s note: Due to the sensitive nature of this story and the tone of the comments, we will henceforth strictly adhere to our comment policy: name-calling and unverified accusations will absolutely not be allowed..)
NORWALK, Conn. – African Americans are not applying to become Norwalk firefighters because of a perception of racism coming from the top down, two retired firefighters say.
The two men — and other sources — are disappointed by the declining percentage of minority members with the Norwalk Fire Department, saying that no black men are currently being considered as new recruits. They say that’s because Chief Denis McCarthy is a racist, but McCarthy defends the recruitment effort with statistics that show, in part, the level of competition for the job.
Andre Williams and Gregory DeValda are two retired firefighters who will go on the record on the topic.
“Chief McCarthy is a racist,” Williams said. “The African American guys that are there would not tell any other African Americans to go in there and be in that type of environment.”
Williams was terminated from the department in 2009. Fire commissioners Michael Coffey and Carol Andreoli said they did it with regrets, according to minutes of the Feb. 17, 2009 meeting. Coffey called the situation tragic and said everyone spoke glowingly of Williams. Andreoli said it was one of the hardest things the commission had done. Mayor Richard Moccia did not attend the meeting.
Devalda said it is true that African Americans are being told not to apply.
“I’ve heard that from a few people, though they do not know (McCarthy) personally,” DeValda said in an email. “I guess through what is seen in the press and dealings he has had with so-called leaders of the black community that didn’t go over well.”
McCarthy says the facts paint a different picture.
Firefighter applicants must pass a series of tests before they can be considered. Overall, 40 percent of Norwalk’s most recent applicants were minority and 36 percent of them took the test, McCarthy said. By comparison, 53 percent of the applicants were white men and 36 percent took the test, he said, a much greater drop off (4 percent compared to 17 percent).
McCarthy said that those who passed the Dec. 8 written test with a score of 70 or better — 19 percent of the 745 passing candidates — included 48 African American men, two American Indians, 66 Hispanic people, two African American men and 17 Caucasian women.
Only the top 87 were invited to move to the next level. No black men made the cut.
“My understanding was they extended the candidate list so an African American woman would make the oral interview portion,” a firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an email. “Is that even legal?”
McCarthy did not confirm or deny that, ignoring an email.
He later provided a list of the top 87 candidates who were invited to the oral interview, which appears to corroborate a list provided by the anonymous informant.
The list of applicants and the list of test results are attached below.
The list of candidates invited to the oral exam includes six Hispanic people and one African American woman, who was second from last. One American Indian passed the test, and one white woman passed the test.
The African American woman was one of five candidates who did not attend the oral interview, McCarthy said.
Neil Dennehy is a Caucausian man who took the test but did not make the cut. The DPW worker said recently he has been trying for nine years to get into the department and that he is giving up.
Dennehy, who was born and raised in Norwalk, said he questions the test. He took the class the department offered to prepare people for the test, an attempt to get more minority members. While the department made every allowance for his disability — attention deficit disorder — he still feels disappointed he said, explaining that only three questions on the test were similar to what he studied in the class.
“I bought books; they turned out to be better books than they gave us,” he said, of the class.
While Williams and DeValda talk of what they call McCarthy’s racist history, which includes a handful of formal complaints, a white member of the department, who declined to be identified, spoke of other elements of department’s past.
In 1986, there were two lists, one for minorities and one for white people, he said. It hasn’t been done the same way since then – the test is the test. You need to study for it, he said. People who take a class aren’t given the answers – they are shown the type of questions that will be asked.
He said there is no racism in the department. Firefighters risk their lives for people who they know nothing about, he said. The people who would go into a burning building to attempt a rescue of a homeless person would not judge people on the basis of their skin color, he said.
Still, DeValda is emphatic in his belief that McCarthy is a problem.
“His dislikes for certain individuals, whether it be based on race or behavior, for some reason is very obvious in insensitive remarks he tends to make,” he said. “When I first met him I could tell that he was not a good fit for a diverse town such as Norwalk , but I said for the benefit of doubt give him some time before I pass judgment. After noticing the different treatment towards black firefighters, new recruits or even discipline actions given to veteran firefighters for the same violation done by non- black firefighters , the name-calling, etc. – Norwalk is not that large of a city, so when a lot of these events make it to the newspaper, radio airwaves, and black firefighters venting their angers to family members and friends, yes, there is negative impact on black Norwalk residents applying for the job. I know quite a few who are applying in other cities.”
In 2007, McCarthy faced two complaints of racism in the department. A lawsuit filed by firefighter Scot Wilson wound up being settled out of court for $41,000, according to court papers.
Williams, the vice president of the Norwalk NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People), said firefighters who speak out face retaliation, but said complaints to the NAACP last year about problems in the department were “more rampant” than ever before.
“When the NAACP is done with him, I hope he won’t be there,” he said. “We want someone who will treat you fair no matter, and that is not Denis McCarthy.”
NAACP President Darnell Crosland did not return a request for comment.
Correction made, 12:11 p.m.