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Editorial: Move city toward fully diverse police force

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For as long as anyone can remember, Chicago has promised to create a fully diverse police force but keeps coming up short. Now City Hall is at it again, and it is perhaps more important than ever — given recent tensions between police departments and minority communities nationwide — that Chicago finally get it right.

Chicago, like every city, should have a Police Department that mirrors the city’s population.

According to the U.S. Census, 32.9 percent of Chicago residents are African-American and 28.9 percent are Latino. But only 23 percent of the non-exempt sworn officers are African-American and only 22 percent are Latino. (Those numbers don’t include the 2.7 percent of Chicagoans who identify as members of more than one race.)

According to the Police Department, the numbers are much better for African-Americans among the command ranks, but are far short for Latinos.

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Chicago has long struggled, often under pressure, to set the matter right. The number of reforms and lawsuits filed over the years, if piled up, would probably be taller than the Willis Tower. As long ago as 1976, a federal judge ordered the Police Department to promote more minorities and women.

Now, as the Dec. 16 deadline nears for signing up for the next police entrance exam in February, the city has hired a communications management firm to run a $100,000 minority outreach campaign to persuade members of minority communities to apply. It’s a much bigger effort than the one preceding the previous police entrance exam in 2013.

On Monday morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy urged a group of 130 ministers, community leaders and residents meeting at the University of Chicago to spread the word as well.

McCarthy has said that, unfortunately, many members of minority communities aren’t all that interested in becoming police officers in the current political milieu. In September, he told the Sun-Times, “When I’ve spoken to a lot of our African-American officers, they tell stories about losing a lot of friends when they became police officers.”

That’s understandable, but law enforcement is an honorable and well-compensated career. And it’s important for any city to have a diverse police department — one that looks like part of the community and not an occupying force.

At a news conference on Monday, McCarthy said the job of police officer offers “the best and the worst of humanity in the same day, frankly.” He said the pendulum swings from “I can’t believe that just happened” — when encountering the best of humanity — to “God almighty, I can’t believe what I just saw.

“The rewards are so much greater than the things that you suffer through, quite frankly, and that’s the only way I can put it,” he said.

Around the country, minority communities have clashed with police. We saw that in Ferguson, Missouri, with the case of Eric Garner in New York, and the case of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among others. People want police officers in their neighborhoods officers who identify with them and their experiences.

Earlier this year, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said the only way to make the Police Department more diverse is to do away with the background checks and psychological testing for news cops. He called the tests and checks tools for weeding minority applicants.

But doing away with testing and background checks would be irresponsible — these folks will carry guns — and the gap in passing rates on such screening tests for minority and white candidates has almost disappeared. For example, whites pass at a rate of 84 percent and blacks pass at 82 percent.

The answer is to attract enough qualified minority applicants that the city can have both a diverse and highly qualified Police Department.

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