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Editorial: Diversifying Buffalo police and fire is right idea, wrongly pursued

Buffalo officials are right on target in their efforts to diversify the city’s police and fire departments. It’s a matter of fundamental fairness and, especially with police, key to gaining the trust and respect of an urban population that personifies the concept of diversity.

But they have to do it legally.

The city failed that basic test at the fire department, costing it a settlement of $1.2 million to white firefighters who were wrongfully passed over for promotions. It’s an expensive reminder of the need to establish fair, predictable policies that acknowledge the pernicious effects of long-term institutional racism – and then to abide by them.

The city didn’t do that in 2005 and 2006. Instead of giving promotions to 12 white firefighters who had earned them, the city allowed two promotions lists to expire because minority firefighters had performed poorly on civil service exams. For good reason, city officials had wanted to promote minorities into higher ranks, but when they couldn’t, they promoted no one, at the expense of the white firefighters who had performed well on the tests.

It was violation of past practices and amounted to illegal discrimination. In 2007, then-State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek acknowledged that fact and awarded the 12 firefighters $2.8 million in back pay, pension benefits and damages for emotional distress.

The award was reduced to $1.6 million on appeal and, last week, the city reached a negotiated settlement of $1.2 million. Of that, $550,000 will be payable immediately, and $650,000 will come due in the future.

Affirmative action programs remain controversial in this country, but few can deny the need to ensure that opportunities are open to minority populations that have been willfully shut out in the past. That won’t happen by accident, especially not in a city that remains one of the nation’s most segregated. It takes attention and action.

And it’s not just a matter of fairness. When all segments of the population see that they are valued and that opportunities are open to them, the entire city stands to benefit. When it’s not, stresses can reach the breaking point. Consider what happened in Ferguson, Mo., four years ago.

A lot of factors were at play when a white police officer shot a young black man to death, but one of them was that an overwhelmingly white police force had long been pushing around an overwhelmingly black population. Even though the victim in that shooting played a prominent role in his own death, trouble was already in the air.

Righting the wrongs of a troubled past is not easy, especially given that racism remains alive in America. But, given that those wrongs continue to influence how we live today, it is in everyone’s interest to make those efforts. That emphatically includes all levels of government which, in the past, were complicit in abusing their own minority populations. They need to be engaged in making that change, but as last week’s settlement shows, they also need to follow the rules.

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