African-American woman to spearhead outreach for police exam

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A Chicago Police cadet graduation ceremony in 2015. | Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times)

A black woman with nearly two decades of experience in Chicago television will spearhead a minority outreach campaign aimed at diversifying the Chicago Police Department at a time of high crime and deep distrust.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has awarded an $85,000 contract to Deborah Farmer’s Brown Farmer Media Group to cast the broadest possible net and convince African Americans outraged by Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video a year ago to not only trust the police, but to join them.

Farmer says her five-month outreach campaign will rely heavily on social-media messaging that has become the language of millennials. But, it will also be grass roots, using established community organizations and retired and current police officers as recruiters.

“We’re looking for peacemakers and change agents. We’re not looking at the video of an incident that happened a year ago. We know that was a very tragic situation,” said Farmer, a former community relations director for WMAQ-TV Channel 5 and segment producer at WGN-TV Channel 9.

“We are in some very challenging times. But that adversity presents a great opportunity for change. Look at the fabric of Chicago and how resilient Chicagoans are. If you want this to be a better city, you have to make contributions.”

In April, Chicago will hold its third police entrance exam in four years to maintain a continuous pipeline of candidates needed to deliver on Emanuel’s ambitious two-year promise to bolster the depleted ranks of the Chicago Police force by 970 officers.

Last year, an unprecedented outreach campaign to diversify the Police Department attracted 14,200 applicants for an April 16 police exam. Of those, 29 percent were African American and 39 percent were Hispanic. The 71 percent minority showing was a 13 percent improvement from the previous outreach campaign.

Farmer’s goal is to do even better to bolster the ranks of a department that’s roughly 48.5 percent white, 27.5 percent black, 20.7 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Asian.

It comes at a time when Chicago cops fearful of being captured on the next YouTube video are in a defensive crouch blamed, in part, for a surge in homicides and shootings that has Chicago on pace to top 700 homicides with a month to go in 2016.

Deborah Farmer | Facebook photo

Deborah Farmer | Facebook photo

“Yes, there’s been a lot of negativity,” Farmer said. “But, when you have a lot of grass roots organizations out there making a difference and partnerships with them I don’t see the challenge.”

National Fraternal Order of Police Executive Director Jim Pasco has questioned Emanuel’s ability to deliver on his hiring promise and recruit new officers in a police department under the cloud of a sweeping federal civil rights investigation triggered by the police shooting of McDonald.

“So much has been done to besmirch the reputation of the Chicago Police Department. This constant drumbeat of media and political criticism of the effectiveness of the department and the conduct of some officers has had a deleterious effect on the perception of the department. When that happens, it makes it more difficult to recruit and train qualified applicants,” Pasco told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

Farmer doesn’t see it that way. She pointed to the words of Marco Johnson, the retired police officer who served on her community advisory board at Channel 5 and will now be one of her chief recruiters.

“Marco lived in a very rough area of Chicago. He decided to join the Chicago Police Department,” she said. “The millennials we see out protesting in mass numbers — they want to make change. Now, we can turn that energy and have them be part of the solution, which is what Marco Johnson did 28 years ago. He did that. He now has a non-profit. His wife is a police officer.”

Emanuel has been under fire for keeping the Laquan McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year and waiting until one week after the April 7, 2015, mayoral runoff election to authorize a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family even before a lawsuit had been filed.

The video was released on Nov. 24, 2015, only after a judge ordered the city to do so and on the same day that white Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with the first-degree murder of the black teenager.

In December, Emanuel apologized for the “systematic breakdown” that culminated in the “totally avoidable” police shooting death and acknowledged the “code of silence” in the police department that he once tried to keep out of a court record.

The mayor has emphatically denied keeping the dashcam video of the McDonald shooting under wraps to get past the election.

But he has acknowledged that he “added to the suspicion and distrust” of everyday Chicagoans by blindly following the city’s long-standing practice of withholding shooting videos to avoid compromising ongoing criminal investigations.

In his struggle to regain the shattered public trust, Emanuel fired a police superintendent he promised to keep, ousted an Independent Police Review Authority chief he once defended and welcomed a federal civil rights investigation he initially called “misguided.”

More recently, the mayor abolished IPRA and replaced it with a new Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and a deputy inspector general for public safety, each with their own guaranteed budgets.

Police hiring and promotions 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.

Five years later, the 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 and eliminated the $30 testing fee.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), former chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee, has argued that the 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.

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