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Veteran KC firefighter wins race discrimination lawsuit

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A veteran Kansas City firefighter won a race discrimination lawsuit this week against the Fire Department and city.

Tarshish "T.J." Jones was a firetruck driver. He claimed that the department deprived him a promotion because of race.

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"It's not an accident. Maybe once or twice is an accident. Two or three times is a pattern," Jones said.

Jones won a $356,000 judgment against the department.

Black firefighters make up 13.5 percent of the Fire Department while less than 8 percent are captains.

"It just wasn't happening time and time again," Jones said.

During his 19 years with the Fire Department, Jones said he applied for captain six times. He was qualified and had seniority.

"Many similar stories, many people getting frustrated. All African-Americans have taken this test three or four times, and our white counterparts are taking it once and getting promoted," Jones said.

"I think their testing procedure for promotions is outrageously subjective. It's videoed. There are many ways to improve that process," said Erin Vernon, of Carter Law Offices.

Lawyer Lynne Bratcher has represented other KCFD employees in discrimination cases. She claims the bias is systemic.

"It's difficult for African-Americans to not only get into the Fire Department, but then once they get in, it's very difficult for them to get promoted," Bratcher said.

KMBC's Taisha Walker talked with Fire Chief Paul Berardi.

"Chief, is there bias when it comes to race within the department?" Walker asked.

"I think if you ask me that question, I may have one opinion. But what is important is that some people feel there is," Berardi said. "To me, the perception that there is not bias is more important than anything."

One thing the department has done with the advancement exam is change how the videotaped part of the test is graded. Instead of being reviewed internally, it is now graded by an outside company to help prevent favoritism. The department has also tried to diversify with a rap recruitment video and apprenticeship program created within the last year.

"It's not for not trying, for not being successful. It's not unique to Kansas City Fire," Berardi said.

There is hope the lawsuit and verdict will help bring about change.

"So I hope that the message this jury sent through this verdict is let's examine where we're at and let's get better," Vernon said.

There are at least two other discrimination lawsuits currently pending against the Fire Department. One is scheduled for jury trial in January.

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