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Redemption can heal

Cop who owns security firm says he is looking “for some kind of forgiveness.”

The Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., is the largest LGBTQ center in the Midwest.
The Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., is the largest LGBTQ center in the Midwest.
Jake Wittich / Sun-Times

“Chicago’s largest LGBTQ center hired a security firm owned by a police officer accused of attacking an African American security guard at a Boystown bar and repeatedly calling him the N-word while off-duty in 2013,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported in September.

That police officer is Tom Walsh.

I thought Walsh was one of the good ones.

I see Walsh all over my neighborhood. I have watched his firm, Walsh Security, and its multi-racial, multi-gender staff working at the Center on Halsted. They are helping to bridge the cultural and racial divides in Boystown.

He used the N-word? Twice?

“I’m not proud of that moment,” Walsh said in a recent interview. “As ugly as it was that night, it doesn’t define who I am.”

Walsh, 58, has been a police officer for 22 years. “I wasn’t raised that way.” He grew up in Oak Park, in “a liberal, open, Irish Catholic family.”

He was off-duty the night after Thanksgiving of 2013. He had some wine with dinner, but wasn’t drunk, he says. He met a friend at the Lucky Horseshoe on North Halsted Street. There was a scuffle. The security guard grabbed him from behind.

Walsh was “angry,” he said, but knows he can’t explain it away.

The guard later won a settlement from Walsh’s insurance company. The Independent Police Review Authority recommended Walsh be suspended for 60 days. Walsh has appealed and the case is in arbitration.

In September the Rev. Jamie Frazier wrote the Center to demand that it dump Walsh Security. The letter cited Walsh’s “violent and racist attack” at the bar and “Walsh Security’s wide-ranging instances of incompetence over the years.”

Frazier is the lead pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago and founder of the Lighthouse Foundation, an African American LGBTQ advocacy group.

The Center has been using Walsh Security since 2014. It paid the company more than $130,000 last year.

Many young LGBTQ people of color seek refuge at the Center. Some are homeless, others suffer from addiction and have been incarcerated. Boystown has been roiled by allegations that its strip of gay-owned bars, and even the Center, are not always welcoming to LGBTQ people of color.

Two years ago, the Center revised its strategic plan to include provisions for racial equity and inclusion and created a new position to monitor that work.

It also asked Walsh to upgrade his operations and required that he and his staff participate in racial sensitivity and other training programs, said Modesto Tico Valle, the Center’s chief executive officer.

“I believe that the incident that Tom went through at the bar is unacceptable,” Valle told me. “But at the same time, I also believe in restorative justice. And Tom has worked very closely with us, making all the changes and doing the trainings that he needed to do. And he continues to this day, five years later, to be respectful, and to continue to evolve and to continue to be responsive to community.”

The Center has issued a request for proposals for security services as part of its regular “due diligence,” Valle said. It has received 10 applications.

Walsh has apologized to his staff, he said. To clients. To neighbors like me. To young people on the streets.

Frazier has not accepted his apology, Walsh said.

Frazier did not respond to my interview requests.

At a recent Chicago Police Board meeting, six young men of color spoke warmly of their street encounters with Walsh. He buys them pizza, ice cream, pop. He has counseled and mentored them. One said Walsh paid for a hotel room when he had nowhere to sleep.

Walsh said this experience has changed him. “I wanted to get more involved and I want to understand (what) these kids are feeling and how they are feeling, and how I can help them,” he said.

“That word is very hurtful, and I know that more now than I have ever realized. So, at this point I am just asking for an opportunity of redemption, for some kind of forgiveness.”

That word leaves a terrible wound. Redemption can heal.

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