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Judge reduces oversight of city police and fire in desegregation case

It was 1979 when U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin first ordered the desegregation of Buffalo's police and fire departments.

Thirty-eight years later, the courts are closer than ever to ending their historic oversight.

Satisfied that the city is abiding by most of Curtin's landmark decrees, the judge now handling the case recently ended much of his order. The courts continue to oversee the selection of police and fire lieutenants.

The latest ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo, who took over the cases when Curtin retired, came three months after lawyers on both sides pointed to a new generation of women and minority officers and firefighters in asking the court to end its oversight.

"The parties submit that Buffalo has substantially obtained the objectives of the provisions of the 1979 order," the lawyers said in their joint motion.

A group representing minority firefighters had a chance to comment to the court on the lawyers' motion but declined to do so.

Vilardo stopped short of ending Curtin's orders, but his decision does reduce the court's oversight of the two departments.

The court's role stems from a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights complaint against the city and Curtin's eventual declaration that the departments' hiring practices discriminated against minorities and women.

In seeking an ultimate end to those desegregation orders, lawyers in the Justice Department and lawyers for the city pointed to new hiring practices that are lawful and, over the years, have resulted in a more diverse police and fire department.

In court papers, they claim the overall sworn workforce in the Police Department is now 22 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic and 21 percent female. That compares with a sworn workforce that was 3 percent black and less than 1 percent Hispanic or female in 1978.

In the Fire Department, the sworn workforce is now 24 percent African-American, 5 percent Hispanic and 4 percent female. In 1978, it was 2 percent black and included no Hispanics or women.

Lawyers for the Justice Department and the city could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and a lawyer for Men of Color Helping All Society, the group of African-American firefighters that is still a party to the suit, declined to comment.

Curtin's desegregation decrees are widely viewed as among the most important decisions of his 48 years on the bench and helped make him both a beloved and unpopular public figure for decades.

He also oversaw the desegregation of Buffalo's public schools.

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