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Death penalty for cop killers but not civilian victims angers activist priest

Father Michael Pfleger poses for a portrait inside his office at St. Sabina on Sept. 28, 2016. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Activist priest Michael Pfleger didn’t mince words in ripping Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to reinstate the death penalty.

“If he had wanted it for everyone, I would have disagreed with the principle, but when he puts police lives more valuable than the black and brown children dying every day then perhaps Gov. Rauner should be charged with a hate crime!” Pfleger said in a press release.

“I think it is political pandering to say we are going to call for the death penalty,” Pfleger told me later, pointing out that he has always been against the death penalty.

I’m pretty sure the families of police officers that were killed in the line of duty won’t see it quite that way.


And in a city where criminals are armed to the teeth, it is not an exaggeration to say that police officers put their lives on the line every day.

But in some neighborhoods citizens are putting their lives on the line just walking out their doors.

Recently a 15-year-old girl was fatally shot in the Englewood neighborhood. She was walking down the street when someone fired shots from a gangway. The girl suffered a gunshot wound to the chest.

Two paragraphs appeared about the shooting in this newspaper, and the girl wasn’t identified by name. No one was apprehended, which means a killer is walking around free to kill again.

Did her life even matter?

That’s the gist of Pfleger’s concern.

Apparently, in search of a hot-button topic, Rauner has proposed resurrecting the death penalty for mass murderers and cop killers — provided they are found “guilty beyond any doubt.”

“Those who kill police officers ‘deserve to give up their life,’” the governor said, sounding like the “tough on crime” candidate of the ’80s.

More than likely, Rauner’s proposal won’t see the light of day.

But while his death penalty rhetoric might anger some voters, there is a growing frustration that not enough is being done to catch the shooters.

Pfleger’s remarks reflect some of that frustration.

He points to the aftermath of the shooting of an ATF agent a couple of weeks ago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood as an example of the different value we place on shooting victims.

The agent was ambushed and shot in the face, triggering an intense manhunt.

“We’re coming for you,” Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson warned, and come they did.

“The police department was out there every day saying: ‘We’re going to catch you.’ They sent this barrage of officers walking the street every single day trying to find this guy,” Pfleger said.

The shooting “was a horrific and horrible thing and it said that nobody was safe and anybody can be shot. But the same week that this is going on, it was the most violent week in Chicago and not a word was said about all the people being shot and killed in this city,” he added.

“That sends a tremendously racist message and continues the stereotype in this country that some lives are more valuable than others,” he said.

Pfleger, who has led anti-violence marches throughout the Auburn-Gresham community, said Chicago’s abysmal low homicide clearance rate is an example of black and brown lives being devalued.

In 2017, the police solved 114 of the 650 murders that occurred in that same year — just 17.5 percent according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of police data.

“We have an 18 percent clearance rate and that’s unacceptable. If [Rauner] had just said I am going to put back the death penalty that’s one thing. But why the death penalty for anybody that kills a police officer?” he asked.

“You are sending a very strong message that [police] lives are more valuable than the lives of the black and brown victims,” Pfleger said.

All lives should matter.

But clearly they don’t.

Mary Mitchell and educator Leslie Baldacci are co-hosts of a popular new podcast called “Zebra Sisters” — a refreshing look at race relations from the viewpoints of two women – one black and one white. Mary and Leslie unwind awkward subjects and discuss current events with candor and humor. Subscribe (for free) on iTunes and Google Play Music — or listen to individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ website. Email Mary and Leslie at zebrasisters@suntimes.com or give them a shout-out on the Zebra Hotline (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).