A 1975 federal consent decree designed to remedy discrimination against blacks in the Philadelphia Fire Department has been dissolved.
As a result of a ruling last week by U.S. District Judge Timothy Rice, Philadelphia is free of the court-ordered hiring requirements put in place to boost the percentage of African Americans serving in the city fire department.
When the decree was issued 39 years ago, about 7 percent of the city's fire fighters were black. Today the figure is about 27.6 percent and an African American - Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer - leads the department's 2,100 uniformed employees.
The requirement was suspended two years ago to allow the city to prove it could maintain on its own a department that is at least 26.7 percent African American. Rice's ruling was a recognition that the city had succeeded in its efforts.
The case was originally brought, in part, by Club Valiants, an organization of African American firefighters in Philadelphia.
Brian R. Mildenberg, a lawyer representing the club, said the Valiants would continue to challenge the city over the issue of hiring African Americans. While the Valiants had agreed to the suspension of the consent degree two years ago, he said, there remained concern about the fairness of the hiring test being used by the city. The Valiants, he said, plan to challenge that test in a court filing.
Black representation among the city's firefighters has been a long-standing issue for Philadelphia. For a time, blacks were not permitted on the force at all, Mildenberg said. And for decades, until 1952, black firefighters were segregated to two firehouses under white commanders.
When the Valiants joined in the 1974 federal suit against the city (then-Fire Commissioner Joseph Rizzo was listed as a defendant), African Americans remained vastly underrepresented on the force, Mildenberg said.
To remedy that, the original consent decree ordered changes in the fire department's entrance and promotion exams and mandated that the percentage of new hires among African Americans be increased each year.
In 2010, the city filed a motion to have the consent degree dissolved, arguing it had made sufficient progress in the goal of increasing the number of African Americans on the force.
Ultimately, it reached a negotiated settlement with the Valiants that allowed for the two-year suspension of the decree and its ultimate dissolution last week.
Part of the settlement required the fire department to create a permanent recruitment unit.
"We want to be sure we are giving everyone an opportunity, whether it is African Americans, Latinos, Asians," Sawyer said. "We should be trying to make sure we reach out to all members of the community.
"I think we are on the right path. It is still going to require constant monitoring to make sure we continue to do a good job recruiting."