A group of black Tacoma firefighters said they won’t allow department leaders to blame minority applicants and the city’s hiring policy for what happened with Ramsey Mueller.
The son of a deputy chief and a probationary firefighter, Mueller died of a heroin overdose days after showing up late to work and nearly hitting another vehicle while driving a firetruck.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Battalion Chief Brian Hardy read a letter sent in February to former City Manager T.C. Broadnax and Mayor Marilyn Strickland.
Hardy said he was speaking on behalf of the Tacoma Black Professional Firefighters.
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Nepotism, the letter read, was to blame for the hiring of Mueller, who had previous drug-related arrests and hospitalizations when hired by the fire department as a recruit in 2015.
“Tacoma Black Professional Firefighters Organization is deeply disturbed by the manipulation of the Tacoma Fire Department’s hiring process to benefit an immediate family member of the deputy chief ... and believe nepotism” was involved, the letter stated.
“We will not allow the Tacoma Fire Department chief and the deputy chief of administration … to place blame on minority applicants, candidates and new hires and the ban the box policy that was recently implemented.”
Interim city manager Elizabeth Pauli said Wednesday the city backs its hiring policies and wants to create more equity in hiring for city jobs.
“The city stands behind its decision to enact the ban the box legislation … the idea of ban the box is to remove barriers and to create a more fair and more equitable hiring process with the hope that we will, as a result of those revised processes, have a more diverse workforce,” Pauli said. “I think it’s a fairly well-established premise that our justice system has a disparate impact on underrepresented groups.”
When asked in December by The News Tribune about Mueller’s hiring, fire department leaders denied nepotism played a role.
Deputy Fire Chief Tory Green, the highest ranking minority member of the fire department’s leadership team, was in charge of hiring at the time of Mueller’s application.
Green said in December that the city’s hiring practices, established by the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, included a “ban the box” element, which shifted criminal background checks to a later stage in the process.
Green said the move was intended to increase diversity in the workforce. He said the old process often excluded people of color at the outset.
“You end up with a very homogenous-looking group of firefighters,” he said.
Fire Chief Jim Duggan added that flagging recruits on background checks alone would mean, “We’re going to start looking very much like a homogenous, white fire department. And we will not reflect the diversity of the community that we serve and we are part of.”
The black firefighters group views those comments as blaming “ban the box” for Mueller’s hiring and implying that minority candidates are more likely to have criminal backgrounds.
“I was hired in 1978 and these comments are reminiscent of the comments that were made when we, the original group of African Americans, were hired in the mid- to late ’70s,” Hardy said.
The city’s hiring policy is meant to encourage diversity and offer second chances to those who might have had previous run-ins with the law. In 2015, the city “banned the box,” removing from most city job applications the question, “Have you been convicted of a felony within the last 10 years?”
While the question was removed, passing a criminal background check continued to be a requirement for applicants.
Mueller passed the background check. He had no felony convictions, but did have recent legal problems and a documented history of drug abuse.
Fire department leaders told The News Tribune they weren’t aware of Mueller’s past, though before his hiring, the background check showed an active arrest warrant tied to a misdemeanor drug charge in California. The department told him the warrant had to be cleared before he could come on board.
The department’s hiring system and policies didn’t capture the underlying details of those incidents.
“TFD was aware of (Mueller’s) troubled past, including drug use and legal problems,” Hardy continued.
He questioned the timing of the city’s decision to revise its employment application questionnaire, implying the changes were designed to aid Mueller.
Records indicate the city revised the hiring questionnaire before Mueller applied for a job. After Mueller’s death and an internal inquiry, Duggan said the questionnaire would be revised again.
He said the department would more closely scrutinize background checks and broaden questions about illegal drug use asked of new hires in the upcoming recruitment class. Instead of asking whether a candidate “currently” is using drugs illegally, the department will ask if they’ve used drugs illegally within the past two years, Duggan said at the time.
“I think the Ramsey Mueller situation was a tragedy,” Pauli said Wednesday. “As a result of that tragedy, we’ve looked hard at our hiring practices and made some changes to our hiring practices.”