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Black Chicago firefighters call for federal probe of fire department

Chicago Fire Lt. Gregory Boggs, the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League president, left, and James Winbush, speak outside department headquarters Thursday. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

An organization of African-American firefighters is calling for the dismissal of Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago and a federal investigation into what the group says are racist policies at the fire department.

“We want Jose Santiago fired,” said James Winbush, a retired deputy fire commissioner and a founding member of African American Firefighters & Paramedics League. “Mayor, get rid of him! We’ve been trying to deal with [Santiago] for five years [with] no results whatsoever.”

Winbush, speaking to reporters outside Chicago Fire Department headquarters at 35th and South Michigan, said Santiago has turned a deaf ear to concerns that his department doesn’t hire enough African-American firefighters.

Fire Lt. Gregory Boggs, the firefighters group’s president, pointed to an agreement in 1980 that the Rev. Jesse Jackson helped negotiate to settle a firefighters strike. As part of the agreement, the city set up hiring guidelines, including having 30 percent of all firefighters in each rank be African-Americans.

“In 36 years, the city has never lived up to that contract,” Boggs said.

Boggs said his organization is seeking a “moratorium” on hiring until the U.S. Department of Justice can investigate the fire department.

He said he knows of African-American candidates who took the firefighter entrance exam in 2014 and were told they’d failed but can’t get access to their test results.

Boggs said his organization also has concerns that African-American firefighters are disciplined much more frequently than others.

In response, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he has Santiago’s back — just as he once had Police Supt. Garry McCarthy’s.

“Jose Santiago did a tremendous job at OEMC and a tremendous job, as not only a firefighter, but leading the Fire Department. He has shown that day-in and day-out when you have fires or other types of emergencies, he has a real professional operation,” the mayor said.

Emanuel argued that both he and Santiago have taken a leadership role in cleaning up a Chicago Fire Department with a long and documented history of discrimination and racial hijinks.

Specifically, the mayor pointed to his decision to resolve the marathon legal battle stemming from the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.

Under Emanuel, the city agreed to hire 111 bypassed African-American firefighters and borrow the $78.4 million needed to compensate nearly 6,000 African-Americans who never got that chance.

“We settled that. Paid out somewhere around $60 million to $75 million to the individuals. Then, produced the class for [111] individuals to fulfill their dreams of becoming Chicago firefighters,” the mayor said.

“Beyond that, I established a policy which is new for the city that, if you’re a CPS graduate, you get points on the system to open up Police and Fire and the rest of city employment to the kids that graduate from CPS.”

The mayor also offered a bit of a history lesson to those African-American firefighters who want the Chicago Fire Department to be swept up into the sweeping federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department.

“Since 1980, the Department of Justice has been working with the Fire Department on their promotion policy. We’ve been cooperating and working with them and will continue to do that,” he said.

“At every level, that aspiration or that goal of equal opportunity and equal access exists and we’ll continue to work at it.”

Contributing: AP