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Biting the Hand That Needs

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"I don't think there's any pattern of discrimination," he says. "It concerns me that there would be any employee that would feel that they were discriminated against and didn't understand the depth of the performance problems with them. That's a communication problem that we'd have to deal with."

Dealing with the problem of discrimination in Fort Lauderdale became public in 1980, after a class-action lawsuit filed by members of the fire and police departments came to a head. The result was a federal consent decree, which called for 30 percent of all future hires to be minorities and/or women, until they comprised 11.25 percent of each department. By 1988 the city still hadn't reached that level, and an affirmative action specialist post was created. Lamar was hired.

For the first few years, Lamar's affirmative action reports were optimistic, pointing out that the city had continued to hire and promote more women and minorities, even if it hadn't quite reached its goals. By 1994, after attempts to diversify all of the city's departments, she began to have doubts. The first draft of her 1995 report suggested that city managers could no longer ignore the fact that, in many cases, the city had not met its affirmative action goals. Nor had it shown any interest in encouraging younger residents to consider city jobs. Lamar knew from her work with at-risk teens, in particular, that minority kids didn't trust the police and had no interest in working for the government in any way. It was the city's responsibility, Lamar suggested, to take an active role in training and recruiting young minorities.

Lamar was told to remove the critiques from her report, but she resisted, arguing that the report would be meaningless without them. In the meantime she missed her deadline and as a result was suspended -- for the first time since she'd begun working for the city -- for one day with pay. When the report was finally submitted, her critiques weren't included.

On the day of the McCree massacre, a Friday, Lamar was at home, recovering from a back injury suffered during an office move. She wasn't due back at work until Monday but decided to head to the office after seeing a report of the incident on the morning news.

Although she was shut out of the crisis meeting, Lamar says she talked to City Manager George Hanbury for two hours that Monday night, warning him that many of the city's employees would believe that the shooting was racially motivated. After the meeting Dr. Cheryl Woodson Johnson, a psychologist recommended by Lamar, was brought in to advise senior managers on how to deal with possible racial repercussions. Two weeks after the shootings took place -- in a beach maintenance trailer, where McCree's former coworkers had gathered prior to heading out for work -- Dr. Johnson told the city's managers that race had played a role in the tragedy. McCree's suicide note, she pointed out, left little to the imagination:

None of this would have never happened. All the hope, effort and opportunity at employment only prove to be futile after being terminated by the city of Fort Lauderdale (job references). I felt I was treated very unfairly by the city after 17 years. The malicious and racist nature of how my situation was 'set up' and handled. The economic lynching without regard or recourse was (is) still something very evil. Since I couldn't continue to support my family, life became nothing. I no longer wanted to live in this kind of world. I also wanted to punish some of the cowardly, racist devils that help bring this about, along with the system. I am glad I did it. It became war. There should have been a more humane system. But no. All too often, the disease (racism) is personified in the white race of devils. After nearly 41 years of life as a black male there's been too many negative experiences and encounters.

"Well, that's kind of clear," Johnson says of the note today. "Even if it wasn't racial, it becomes a racial issue by virtue of this world and society that we live in. It was racial just because it happened that way [a black man killing all white men]. And you're sticking your head in the sand if you choose not to see that."

After Johnson's visit with the city's managers, she was not asked back to lead counseling sessions with employees. Instead, Panoch and Larkin hired a crisis-management team with experience in workplace violence, not racism.

"It was my conclusion after spending time [analyzing the shooting] that that act was not racially motivated," Witschen says. "Nothing I see warrants that conclusion."

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Lucy Chabot

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