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O’Toole to head inquiry into Hub fire department

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Smith

BOSTON — Kathleen O’Toole, a member of the international panel overseeing reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, will head a newly appointed commission in Boston that will examine operations of the city’s fire department, including hiring and promotional practices.

O’Toole, who was formerly the highest-ranking female on the Massachusetts State Police and a superintendent with the Metropolitan Police, is expected to convene commission meetings later this month in Boston. Her role on the Patten Commission should end during the summer, when that panel will issue its recommendations regarding law enforcement in Northern Ireland.

The Hub’s five-member commission is being set up by mayor Thomas Menino in response to a three-part series in the Boston Globe last month that alleged that the best-paying jobs in the city’s fire department are held by Irish-American men.

As reported in last week’s Echo, that assertion has sparked a furor within the city’s Irish-American community. Many residents, including former Vatican ambassador and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, called the charges unfair, inflammatory and racially divisive.

The series, by reporter David Armstrong, suggested that the shamrocks depicted on the sides of some fire trucks may be interpreted as symbolic of Irish-American prejudice against minorities.

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In a follow-up article in the Boston Globe last week, the "Irish-American" designation was dropped from the characterization of those in control, with "white males" and "an old boy network" being identified as the group in power.

The controversial Globe series acknowledges that minorities now constitute about 29 percent of the force, a ratio comparable to that of other big cities. Nevertheless, the series contends that minorities feel justifiably aggrieved because they comprise only about 3 percent of the upper echelon jobs. Those positions have traditionally been filled through promotional exams, a practice that Fire Commissioner Martin Pierce calls "color blind and fair."

The issue of racial and gender inequality in the upper ranks of the department is one of several thorny matters which will confront O’Toole and her panel when they begin their review of the department’s policies and practices.

Last year, the Boston City Council convened meetings to address a similar issue, but from a different perspective. City Council president James Kelly called those meetings on behalf of a number of white residents who were complaining that, despite near-perfect examination scores, they were unable to get jobs with the police or fire departments because of their skin color.

In addition to her duties as panelist with the two commissions, O’Toole serves as executive director of the Boston College Alumni Association.

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