Axelrod’s former firm gets $100K contract for minority outreach on police exam

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A communications management firm founded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s longtime friend and former White House colleague David Axelrod has been chosen to conduct a $100,000 minority outreach campaign aimed at diversifying the Chicago Police Department.

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed that Emanuel was mapping plans to hold Chicago’s second police entrance exam in two years after another outreach campaign aimed at attracting a pool of applicants that “better reflects Chicago’s diverse population.” Previous outreach campaigns have fallen short.

Now, the $100,000 contract has been awarded to ASGK Public Strategies LLC, the firm that Axelrod founded in 2002 with partner Eric Sedler that now has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami, as well as Chicago.

Axelrod is Emanuel’s friend of 30 years. The two men worked together in the White House when Emanuel was serving as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff and Axelrod was a senior adviser to the president.

Axelrod has sold his interest to ASGK. But the firm still has deep ties to Emanuel.

Former State Sen. Judy Erwin (D-Chicago), who co-chaired Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign, is a partner in ASGK.

Erwin abruptly resigned from Emanuel’s transition team after reports that she conducted political business on state time while serving as executive director of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education.

The violation of state ethics rules, which prompted Erwin to pay a fine and promise never again to seek state office, occurred in 2008 while Erwin was raising money for the Obama campaign. The state’s Executive Ethics Commission did not rule on the case until 2011.

The ASKG team also includes Emanuel’s former press secretary Sarah Hamilton and the mayor’s former deputy press secretary Catherine Turco.

In a “request for quotations” posted on the Department of Procurement Services website, the city solicited bids from firms interested in developing a “comprehensive recruiting and outreach campaign” for a police exam to be held in February after a monthlong application process scheduled to begin in early October.

The city set aside $100,000 for the outreach coordinator and $50,000 for radio, television and digital advertising.

Interested bidders were encouraged to “think creatively” and to be “dynamic in your approach” to devising a recruiting and outreach strategy with messaging “specific to targeted audiences.”

They were urged to make use of “social media, community events, neighborhood organizations, email lists, newsletters, bulletins, public events and local and national figures willing to donate time to appear at events or film public service announcements.”

Bidders were further advised to make “active engagement of members of the City Council” a “core component” of any outreach and recruiting plan.

ASGK had no immediate comment about the outreach campaign the firm has in mind or how and why it will succeed where other outreach campaigns have failed.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, has argued that the Chicago Police Department will remain disproportionately white — and crime-fighting will suffer because of it — unless changes are made to the independently administered background checks and psychological exams.

“These are the tools used to weed out and disqualify minorities and keep out people of color. You need to change the criteria. It needs to be more than one person’s opinion,” Beale told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year.

Police Supt. Garry McCarthy shot down Beale’s claim that background checks and psychological exams administered to police candidates are the “tools used to weed out and disqualify” minorities.

“That’s absurd . . . Absolutely absurd. There are standards. We have to give psychological exams to people who we’re going to give guns to. I don’t think that’s something we could possibly get away from,” McCarthy said.

But McCarthy readily acknowledged that the Police Department was fighting an uphill battle in its effort to attract a police force that mirrors the city’s diverse population.

McCarthy noted that, before the 2013 police exam that attracted a record 19,000 applicants, the police department put together an attractive young team of officers to fan out across the city and speak at schools, churches and community events.

“We didn’t get the [black and Hispanic] numbers coming in that we wanted. . . . It has a lot to do with what’s happening in the world today. . . . You know what’s happening across the country and how people are looking at policing right now,” he said.

“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,” McCarthy said. “At the end of the day, that has to be overcome. That’s part of the reason why we’re embarking on this community relations strategy building that we’re doing right now.”

Hiring and promotions in the police and fire departments have generated controversy in Chicago for as long as anyone can remember.

The criticism reached a crescendo in 1994 after a sergeants exam produced just five minority promotions out of 114. The test was the first to be administered by the city after “race-norming” — the practice of adjusting scores on the basis of race — was ruled unconstitutional.

In November 2005, City Hall announced plans to offer the police entrance exam a record four times the following year, and for the first time on the Internet, after an unprecedented outreach campaign that bolstered the number of minority applicants to 34 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic and 26 percent women.

More than two years later, black ministers told then-newly appointed Police Supt. Jody Weis that, if he was serious about re-establishing trust between police and the black community, he should start by hiring and promoting more African-Americans.

In 2010, the Chicago Police Department seriously considered the idea of scrapping the police entrance exam altogether to bolster minority hiring, save millions on test preparation and avert costly legal battles that have dogged the exam process for decades.

If the process had been opened to everyone who applied and met the minimum education and residency requirements, Chicago would have been virtually alone among major cities.

The idea was ultimately scrapped after police experts and union leaders denounced the idea on grounds that a background check and psychological exam alone would not, as the CPD’s former personnel chief Brad Woods put it, “eliminate some people who should not be there.”

More recently, Emanuel imposed a hiring preference for Chicago Public School graduates that infuriated firefighters.

Overall, the Chicago Police Department is 48.5 percent white, 27.5 percent black, 20.7 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Asian.

But Beale has said, “It’s horrible in the higher ranks. The higher you go, fewer minorities there are.”

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