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Editorial: Problems, perhaps, but not racism

African-American firefighter applicants taking the May 1 exam should not have to worry about being disqualified based on race. Not after empirical evidence settled the troubling claim.

Still, Buffalo Common Council members have pledged to re-evaluate 41 potential recruits who were rejected during the last hiring process on the recommendations of the city’s former psychologist.

Roughly a dozen African-American applicants, the majority applying to the Fire Department, complained to a Council committee in late February about their treatment. They succeeded in passing other parts of the fire or police exam, yet were removed from eligibility lists after a 10- to 15-minute verbal psychological exam.

These applicants thought that the process was biased against them because they are African-American. Jay A. Supnick, a psychologist who founded Law Enforcement Psychological Associates in Rochester, denied such claims and said typical interviews lasted 45 minutes.

Some Council members agreed some of Supnick’s questions seemed inappropriate, such as the number of sexual partners an applicant had or the number of children out of wedlock. Indeed.

The Council has severed ties with Supnick or, since he resigned before he could be fired, he severed ties with the city. Either way, he’s out – unless he tries to get back in. He had no comment when asked if he would reapply for the contract. Still, numbers don’t lie and, to a degree, might absolve Supnick.

The Buffalo News obtained data through a Freedom of Information Law request, although the city should have simply handed over the information, as it does not verify claims of racism and, more to the point, the information is public.
Data from 2014, the last time the Fire Department hired, show African-Americans made up 39.5 percent of the 2,418 applicants who took the written exam and 36.6 percent of the 1,219 who made the first round, which included passing the written test.

Beyond that point, News staff reporter Deidre Williams wrote, African-Americans comprised 36.8 percent of those rejected for other reasons, including residency or failing the department’s physical ability, drug or polygraph exams. Blacks made up 36.6 percent of those rejected strictly on the basis of the psychological exam.

The numbers speak for themselves but the Council is doing the right thing by looking at the entire system, starting with adding two highly-qualified people to an already impressive five-member appeals committee: Retired D’Youville College President Sister Denise A. Roche as moderator, and the Rev. Edward Jackson Jr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, as a committee member. Jackson has an advanced degree in mental health.

While examining the entire system for hiring for the police and fire departments, Council members might want to carefully consider all facets of the application process to avoid any future bias claims.

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