Schor under fire for Lansing Fire Dept.’s lack of diversity

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor| Nick Manes

There’s been a very public war of words between Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and former Lansing Fire Department Chief Randy Talifarro.

Now Dale Copedge, president of the Lansing NAACP, says he wants to hear more from both men regarding the lack of diversity within the Lansing Fire Department. There’s also been a high-profile discrimination lawsuit filed by Lansing firefighter Michael Lynn Jr., who is African-American.

Lansing and East Lansing Fire Chief Randy Talifarro spoke at the Replace Don’t Erase Personal Property Tax press conference in 2012 | Michigan Municipal League photo, Flickr

Schor, who is white, outlined a plan last week to better reflect racial sensitivity and fair treatment within the city’s fire department.

“We have a desire and an expectation to be diverse and match our community,” Schor told the Advance on Tuesday.

Talifarro, who is African-American, had resigned his position in May 2018. On March 8, he penned a stinging open letter to Schor in response to the plan, in which he challenged the mayor’s leadership style and commitment to diversity.

The dispute has sparked a debate about whether local government operates a workforce that best reflects the city’s population.

“We need to do some information gathering and have the opportunity to sit and discuss with the mayor and his staff, so we know what we need to do as an organization to see more diversity and inclusion,” Copedge told the Advance on Tuesday, speaking on behalf of the civil rights chapter.

Dale Copedge

He also is an Ingham County commissioner representing southwest Lansing. Schor appointed him last year to the Mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.

Talifarro said in his letter that he chose to resign as fire chief last year because of a lack of trust and his feeling that Schor, who was elected in November 2017, wanted to move forward with his own pick for the job.

“In fact, in the six months that I worked for the new mayor, I was not consulted on any issue of consequence in the organization and this was problematic for the department and community at-large,” wrote Talifarro. “It was unhealthy, to say the least.”

Talifarro became Lansing’s fire chief in 2012 while also holding the same post in East Lansing during the administration of Schor’s predecessor, Virg Bernero.

In June 2018, Schor named David Purchase, who is white and served 14 years as chief for the Norton Shores Fire Department, as interim fire chief.

In January, Schor announced Michael Mackey as Lansing’s new fire chief. Mackey, who also is white, served for more than 30 years at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, one of Florida’s largest fire departments.

Talifarro’s letter triggered a quick response from Schor.

“He and I met and talked when he had issues that he wanted to bring to me, and when I had things I needed to discuss with him I would chat with him, as well,” said Schor through a lengthy statement published by the Lansing City Pulse.

Tensions in the department go deeper than the executive level.

In January, Lynn filed a federal lawsuit arguing that city of Lansing failed to stop racial discrimination in its fire department. The Lansing State Journal reported that Lynn found a banana on the windshield of his assigned truck.

Lynn, who was hired in 2014, said that he was retaliated against after he complained about the incident and has accused city officials of failing to protect him.  

Schor’s council

After taking office in January 2018, Schor’s second executive order was to establish the Mayor’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council designed to address disparities in employment and participation.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, March 12, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Copedge is a member of the panel that was tasked with developing and recommending a diversity and inclusion management plan to the mayor. He and Schor, both Democrats, were candidates for the 68th District state House seat that Schor ultimately won in 2012.

Additionally, Lansing Fire Department personnel have participated in racial sensitivity trainings during Schor’s tenure as mayor.

Talifarro applauded Schor for creating the council, but he also suggested that the mayor go even further.

“Make sure it serves a substantive purpose for the betterment of the community, not as an apparatus for personal political gain,” he wrote in the letter. “With that, I encourage you to give the commission the authority and resource to seek the truth, address the problems and implement procedures and processes that will bring about much positive change in furtherance of diversity and inclusion.”

Over the weekend, Bernero weighed in on the dispute. He declined to run for another term in 2017 after Schor declared for mayor. That move followed controversies in Bernero’s tenure, including a $160,000 settlement agreement with former City Attorney Janene McIntyre. He said at the time that he had to “put my family first.”

Virg Bernero | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

“Chief Talifarro is a consummate professional who has earned the respect of Lansing area citizens in and out of the fire service,” Bernero said, as reported  by WILX-TV. “The Lansing Fire Department and indeed the city of Lansing are better off thanks to Randy’s bold and intelligent leadership.

“City leaders should pause to carefully consider what he has to say. Reaction is not the same as thoughtful reflection and response,” he continued. “Racial reconciliation and healing is possible only when all sides are at the table with a listening ear and an open mind. That is the kind of dialogue Lansing must strive for, now more than ever.”

Fire Dept. history

The department has made strides in diversity in recent decades, but Copedge and others argue that there is more work to do.

Sam Hopkins

Roger Roberts was Lansing’s first Black firefighter. He was hired in 1962. Sam Hopkins holds the distinction of the being the city’s first African-American fire chief, earning that title in 1988. He later served as Ann Arbor’s fire chief.

Today, the Lansing department’s racial makeup is 19.5 percent African-American. That’s below the city’s African-American population of 23 percent.

Only 7.6 percent of the department is Latino, compared with the city’s 12.5 percent Latino population. Similarly, 1.2 percent of the department is of Asian descent compared with the city’s 3.7 percent Asian population. Whites, however, make up 71.5 percent of the department, while only composing 61 percent of Lansing’s population.

Schor told the Advance on Tuesday that he wants to see people of color better represented in the fire department and improve delivery of services for residents.

“We have to have two things,” he said. “We have to have adequate response. We had a situation where due to retirements and promotions we were not going to have enough paramedics to staff our ambulances.

“First and foremost, we have to be able to serve the community,” he continued. “Whether you are a person of color, or not you need to be served when you have an emergency. We need to have ambulances in our neighborhoods, so we need to have paramedics. Unfortunately, the paramedic class that we hired lacked diversity. So we are taking several steps.”

Creative Commons

Copedge said that the most recent class of recruits had only one Latino person and the remainder of the class were white males.

“That was something that kind of hit us,” he said.  

Diversity plan

Kate Sumbler photo, Flickr

Schor’s plan includes carrying out the following steps:

  • Create a cadet youth program
  • Identify an “appropriate mix of paramedics and Emergency Medical Technicians to ensure efficiency and diversity”
  • Strive to maintain a workforce demographically representative of Lansing’s diverse community, especially in public safety
  • Continue to hold regular racial sensitivity trainings
  • Forbid racial discrimination “in any department”
  • Employ “qualified firefighters”
  • Address appropriately and use an independent investigator, “as needed.”

Schor also announced that the city will also “engage in Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation framework in Lansing to actively inform and discuss their issues with the citizens.”

Copedge says that the Lansing NAACP will continue to work with the Schor administration, as well as Talifarro, during the upcoming weeks and months.

“It’s about how do we go about resolving it and in a manner where there is a good remedy to promote diversity,” Copedge said.  

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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