By Jim Smith
BOSTON — Fed up with a system they say is outdated and unfair to whites who want to be police officers or firefighters, three Irish-American men have filed suit in federal court against the City of Boston.
Sean O’Brien and Joseph Quinn of Dorchester are suing to become members of the Boston Fire Department, while Bradley Donahue has sued for a position on the police department.
At issue is a court order issued more than 25 years ago that established a system designed to help black and Hispanic applicants gain entrance onto the police and fire departments. O’Brien, Quinn and Donahue claim that the goal of those quotas has been met because the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in those departments is now equal to or greater than the percentage of those groups in the city’s labor pool.
O’Brien, a 33-year-old emergency medical technician, and Quinn, a 31-year-old plumber, filed their suit in U.S. District Court in Boston two weeks ago. Donahue, who is presently working as a police officer on Cape Cod, filed his suit in the same court one year ago. His case is pending.
O’Brien, whose grandparents came here from County Galway, said last week that he has wanted to be a firefighter since he was a young boy. "My father had been a Boston fireman for 30 years," he said. "I was only 8 years old when he died, and I knew back then what I wanted to be when I grew up."
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O’Brien and Quinn are married with young children. Both scored 99 out of a possible 100 on the most recent civil service exam. "We’re both very qualified for the position, but we keep getting passed over," O’Brien said. "It’s been very frustrating."
Donahue, who is 32, is being represented by attorney Michael McLaughlin, who has been successful in arguing in other court cases against quotas and racial balancing. In 1995, McLaughlin successfully sued the Boston School Committee after his daughter Julia was denied entrance to Boston Latin School even though she ranked higher than 100 minority students who were admitted. He later represented another child, Sarah Wessman, who was finally admitted to Boston Latin in 1998 when the federal appeals court declared the city’s race-based school admissions policy unconstitutional.
In his complaint on behalf of Donahue, who continues to reside in Boston while working on the Cape, McLaughlin chides city officials for continuing to use quotas to hire police officers. "The defendants in the latest in a series of cases are once again deliberately continuing to use a quota with full knowledge that it is unconstitutional," he said.
Supporters of the utilization of quotas in police hiring, including the NAACP and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, suggest that a Donahue victory in court would signal a return to what they describe as an entrenched, old-boy network in which white, predominantly Irish-American men control the department.
O’Brien counters that the issue is one of fairness. "Guys like me and Quinn who grew up in the city aren’t looking for any special favors," he said. "All we want is a fair shot."