What is the Consent Decree that relates to the Syracuse Police and Fire Departments?

A consent decree is a judicially-enforced order from a federal court to enforce an agreement negotiated between parties. In Syracuse, there is a Consent Decree resulting from an agreement between the City of Syracuse, New York State, Onondaga County, and the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”).  It went into effect in 1980, and is still in effect today.

How did the Consent Decree come into existence, and what does it mean?

The Consent Decree was the result of a lawsuit filed in 1978 by the City of Syracuse, Mayor Lee Alexander and the City’s police and fire chiefs, against the New York State Civil Service Commission and Onondaga County.  At the time, the City sought to increase the percentage of African-Americans and women in its police and fire departments, but viewed the legally-required state civil service examination as a barrier.  Under NYS civil service law, the City must hire from among the three highest scoring candidates on the list of candidates who take a civil service examination.  This is known as the “rule of three” and applies to all civil service tested jobs across New York State.  The City alleged that this system, which was required by New York State and run by Onondaga County, was discriminatory and illegal because the police officer and firefighter exams were culturally biased and unrelated to true job performance for the jobs.  Using the rule of three almost always resulted in the hiring of White, male applicants.  Around this time, African American made up only 2.2% of the City’s police officers and 1% of its firefighters. 

In 1980, DOJ started a similar lawsuit, seeking the same outcome as the City: to eliminate barriers to diversity for police officer and firefighter candidates. The two cases were joined together.

In 1980, all four parties – the City, New York State, Onondaga County and DOJ – came to an agreement that became the Consent Decree.  The agreement recognized that:

  • the Syracuse police and fire departments should be representative of the community’s labor force;
  • historic imbalances in the City’s police and fire department hiring should be rectified; and
  • the flaws in the New York State civil service examination that contributed to these imbalances should be remedied. 

The Consent Decree set a long-term goal to have African-Americans comprise all ranks of SPD and SFD in numbers similar to their representation in the City’s labor force.  At the time, this percentage was 10% but has grown over subsequent decades.  As a tool to reach that goal, the Consent Decree allowed the City to modify its hiring preferences and deviate from the rule of three in order to select African-American candidates.

In 2013, DOJ sought to force New York State to develop new police officer and firefighter civil service exams to remove any remaining bias.  In the years that followed, the State and DOJ worked together to develop new exams.  A new firefighter test was administered in Syracuse in April 2019, and a new police officer exam was administered in September 2019.

What is the current status of the Consent Decree?

Forty years later, the City’s police and fire departments are more diverse, but are still not representative of the City’s labor force.  Currently, African-Americans comprise 17% of SFD and 9% of SPD. 

The Consent Decree is still in place, but it is at risk.  Based, in part, on the fact that new exams have been developed, DOJ is seeking to dissolve, or end, the Consent Decree.  DOJ first notified the City of its intention on April 11, 2019.  The City notified DOJ that it opposed ending the Consent Decree in a letter, dated May 23, 2019. Most recently, on September 4, 2020, DOJ formally filed a motion in the U.S. District Court, Northern District, asking the court to end the Consent Decree. 

Why is DOJ seeking to end the Consent Decree?

Regarding the Syracuse Consent Decree, DOJ takes the position that the development of the new civil service exams for police officers and firefighters signifies the completion of the Decree’s goals, despite the fact that the demographics of the departments still do not reflect the local labor force. 

What will Mayor Walsh do to oppose efforts to end the Consent Decree?

The City will aggressively oppose DOJ’s motion, and will argue to United State’s District Court, Judge David Hurd, that the Consent Decree should not be eliminated at this time because the original objectives of the Consent Decree are of equal importance today, and have not yet been met. Whether the Consent Decree remains in place or not will ultimately be decided by the federal court.

Timeline of Event

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