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Kansas City Council Demands Change After Fire Department Accused Of Systemic Racism And Sexism

Kansas City commission member Brandon Ellington poses questions to Fire Chief Donna Lake during a business session Thursday afternoon.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City councilman Brandon Ellington poses questions to Fire Chief Donna Lake during a business session Thursday afternoon.

Thursday's hearing follows a Kansas City Star report that revealed the Kansas City Fire Department has tolerated harassment and discrimination targeting Black and women firefighters for decades.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and city council members demanded change from the fire department Thursday following a report in the Kansas City Star that documented a pattern of racism and discrimination.

The three-part investigation, released Sunday, chronicled numerous problems in the department, including a dearth of black firefighters, especially in leadership positions, and even a lack of women’s bathrooms in some stations.

During a city council meeting, Fire Chief Donna Lake said she had been directed by newly-hired city manager Brian Platt to institute reforms. Among the reforms she promised include:

  • Revisions to disciplinary procedures, to ensure anonymity and accountability.
  • Overhauls of entrance and promotional processes.
  • A review of all departmental policies.
  • A request for funds to establish a new equity and diversity officer position.

“Cultural change in an organization steeped in long-held traditions does not come easily,” Lake said. “Just like we've seen in city government, and federal government, and across the entire country.”

Lake, who was named fire chief last year, vowed that more change would come. But she also said COVID-19 has hampered some of the department’s existing efforts to improve diversity. And, she said, the current class of 33 recruits is the most diverse in the departmental history — 45% women or people of color.

But council members demanded more.

Councilman Kevin O’Neill told Lake he hopes the new diversity equity officer comes from outside the department. To hire an insider, he said, would be like “the fox watching the hen house.”

“I'm just going to be all the way honest,” said councilman Brandon Ellington. “I typically don't use the race card because it mutes arguments. When I hear white folks talk about cultural change, multi-year processes, and how hard it is to do, I hear nothing but excuses.”

Lucas said he is “horrified,” but not surprised, by the reported problems, "and that’s a problem to me.” It “seems insane” that the department still does not have women’s bathrooms at every station, he said.

“Your budget last year was about $174 million,” he told Lake. “I think we need to fix the bathrooms.”

This was the first public meeting for new city manager, Brian Platt, who entered the job this weekunder fire for alleged discrimination in this past job in New Jersey. Councilwoman Katheryn Shields challenged Platt, who would be in charge of hiring the new diversity officer, to take the lead on instituting reforms citywide.

“This isn't going to change unless we have a city manager who actually manages the departments of the city, and frankly our prior city manager did not do that,” she said, referring to former city manager Troy Schulte, who left the position last year for a similar role with Jackson County.

Platt promised to develop an action plan within 30 days.

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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