Audit of Policies and Practices Related to Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Within the Chicago Fire Department

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed an audit assessing the Chicago Fire Department’s (CFD) policies and practices related to discrimination and sexual harassment. The Department—which is 90% male and 66% White—has been a defendant in multiple discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits. This history raises concerns about whether its internal culture, which typically lags behind changes to laws and policies, negatively affects the experience of members who are not among its prevailing demographics. The Department is not alone in facing these issues; nationwide, fire department demographics are relatively homogenous, and departments share historical cultural challenges related to discrimination and sexual harassment.

We examined CFD’s discrimination and sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures, and aspects of their implementation. We also conducted a survey of the Department, to which 285 employees, or 6% of CFD’s roughly 5,000-person workforce, responded. While their responses may not represent the views of all CFD employees, high rates of respondents reported experiencing on-the-job discrimination and/or sexual harassment. Survey respondents also provided ideas for how CFD could better address these issues.

Based on the audit results, OIG concluded that while CFD’s policies comply with federal, state, and local laws, the policies themselves, as well as the complaint process and training used to enforce and promote them, are insufficient to meet the environmental challenges posed by a command and control emergency service operation like CFD. Furthermore, the Department’s culture and workplace environment may make some members vulnerable to discrimination and/or sexual harassment.

OIG also learned that CFD’s process for scheduling interviews for members who made formal complaints about discrimination or harassment placed them at risk of retaliation and potentially discouraged them from reporting misconduct. We notified the Department and suggested revising its approach. In response, CFD implemented changes to its complaint and investigation policy.

CFD’s historical struggles with allegations of on-the-job discrimination and sexual harassment demonstrate that more robust policies and enforcement are needed to protect its members. Firefighters and paramedics live together while on duty, spend 24-hour shifts with each other, and work in a high-risk, high-stress environment where their lives and the lives of others depend on members’ cooperation and mutual trust. These conditions require a thoughtful and tailored approach that goes beyond adoption of the blanket policy that covers all City employees, most of whom perform their jobs in more typical workplace environments.

We recommend that CFD provide the Internal Affairs Division staff with written guidance and training on processes for receiving complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment in a trauma-informed manner and referring them to the Department of Human Resources – Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity Division (EEO Division) for investigation. CFD should implement training for its members, supplemental to the training provided by the EEO Division, that is tailored specifically to CFD’s unique workplace environment and delivered by instructors with fire service experience. OIG also recommends that CFD appoint a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer to consult on issues of diversity, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Finally, OIG recommends that CFD develop a strategy to include more safeguards to protect reporting members and victims from potential retaliation.

In response, CFD stated that it will create written guidelines for referring discrimination and sexual harassment complaints to the EEO Division and will train its investigators on trauma-informed interviewing techniques. CFD will provide its members with supplemental training on discrimination and sexual harassment that is tailored to the Department’s workplace. CFD will also work with the Office of Budget and Management and the Department of Human Resources to add a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer position in the 2022 budget, and will continue to seek ways to increase diversity in its hiring process. Finally, CFD expressed its dedication to fostering a culture that does not tolerate retaliation, but stated it will not commit to a strategic approach to address issues highlighted in this audit until after the appointment of a new commissioner.