Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
The city says the practice leads to less diversity among firefighters.
There’s a long and honorable tradition of entire families devoting themselves to civil service—just ask my mom, who counts Blue Bloods, the CBS drama about a large family of New York cops, among her least guilty pleasures. But a new Los Angeles Fire Department protocol is testing whether the department would be more diverse—not to mention more effective—with fewer fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and brothers in the mix.
On Tuesday, the city announced new recruitment protocols that would force department members involved in the recruiting process who are acquainted with an applicant to report that information to their their superiors.
The rules come after revelations earlier this year that 21 of 70—a full 30 percent—of the LAFD's 2014 recruits had relatives who were already on the force. A report from the department’s internal watchdog also found that thousands of applicants were immediately disqualified from the hiring process after they failed to submit their paperwork in the first 60 seconds of the application period, indicating that those with insider knowledge about the procedure had a significant leg up. Emails obtained by the L.A. Times suggest that high-ranking fire department officials even led workshops on the application process for “LAFD cadets and family members of the LAFD only.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has drawn links between the department’s nepotism problems and its lack of diversity. Sixty percent of the January 2014 recruiting class was white; it included only one woman. L.A. officials say they want the department, which is majority white, to look more like the city, which is only 29 percent non-Hispanic white.
Though those who help their family members obtain jobs don’t necessarily intend to exclude minorities, U.S. courts have recognized that's often the result. In Thomas vs. Washington County School Board, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a black schoolteacher who had lost out on a job because a white applicant had heard about the job from her husband, a teacher in the district. The white woman had gone through only one interview; all other applicants went through three. "In such cases," the court wrote, "nepotism, word-of-mouth hiring, and similar practices might simply amount to 'bad acts'....However, when the work force is predominantly white, nepotism...may discriminate against minorities as effectively as any intentionally discriminatory policy."
Other cases indicate that nepotism can lead to morale issues within departments. An investigation into an Oklahoma fire department found that when a fire chief’s son was improperly promoted, several firefighters contemplated leaving the force altogether.
Still, plenty of firefighters will tell you that hearing family members talk about their experiences on the job was what sparked their passion for joining in the first place. Dan Shook, a lieutenant with an Ohio department, told the trade publication Fire Engineer Magazine that he might not have been on the force without “hearing all of the war stories that Dad told at the dinner table. They ranged from almost dying from a fall through a roof to the gore of the fatal car accident he was just on. All of it, although dangerous, was and is exciting."
Back in L.A., officials say the new rules will ensure family members will be getting hired for the right reasons. “These are common-sense things people should be doing anyway,” Commissioner Jimmie Woods-Gray, who is responsible for overseeing the department, told the Times.