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Chicago turns to minority clergy to recruit police

Black, Latino officers are sought to improve community relations

CHICAGO -- Standing at the pulpit of his church in the Cabrini-Green housing development, the Rev. Walter Johnson preaches to the thump of a bass guitar, telling the all-black congregation about love, hope, and forgiveness. Then he asks members to consider a new life, to get in shape, get their education, and become, of all things, police officers.

It seems an unusual pitch for a clergyman in a neighborhood racked by gangs and drugs. But in a bid to diversify its ranks, the Chicago Police Department has enlisted thousands of clergy across the city to recruit young, minority residents.

Police officials know it's a tough sell. Trust between police and minorities in this city is tenuous, weakened by allegations of racism and brutality. But Superintendent Phil Cline said he believes that trust can be rebuilt by getting those same residents to join a force that is about 55 percent white, even though the city's population is roughly 60 percent black and Latino.

''For the type of people that we're looking for, people with high morals and an ethical character, what better place to look than in the churches, the mosques, and the synagogues?" Cline asked. ''It's an untapped pool."

Cline made the pitch last month to about 2,000 local clergy, of all faiths, asking each to identify at least two congregants who would make model officers, to fill the roughly 600 vacancies every year. But the charge is more than gathering names. Clergy are being asked not only to recruit men and women, but to shepherd them through the entire process, from signing up and taking the Nov. 20 entrance exam to getting in shape for physicals, Cline said.

''The faith community is open without being co-opted by the police," said Johnson of Wayman AME Church. ''We're willing to come in. In order for us to be truly diversified in this city, we need more diversity in the Police Department."

Don Polk, 35, a telecommunications manager and a member of Johnson's church, is intrigued. It's steady work, he said, a chance to make a difference.

''It used to be you really didn't see officers who mirrored yourself," he said. ''But it has been getting better, and I think there's room for improvement if you have officers from the neighborhoods and they can relate to what's going on. You need people who don't have a problem doing what's right."

The idea makes sense to some specialists. ''Ministers are seen by all to be nonthreatening," said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. ''If the Police Department looks like a cross section of the community, it doesn't foster the we-them dynamic."

Chicago's force is not as dominated by white men as it once was. Minority representation has steadily increased, jumping 6 percentage points in the past three years, to about 45 percent black and Latino. But that does not reflect the city's population. The problem is more severe in the upper ranks, where 45 of the 76 command staff members are white and 75 percent of the roughly 1,600 sergeants, lieutenants, and captains are white.

''It's a slow process to change the face of the department," said Cline, who is white. His second-in-command is black.

In the late 1990s through early 2001, the department struggled against a strong economy that sapped the applicant pool, as potential recruits sought jobs in the private sector. In 2001, 3,750 people applied to be police officers, compared with 36,000 in 1991.

Last year, the total shot up to 8,350 applicants, but the number of minority candidates has slipped. Ten years ago, blacks made up 49 percent of applicants; today, it's closer to 30 percent, Cline said.

A large factor in the decline, Cline said, is the requirement of at least two years of college or a combination of college and military experience.

Cline recognizes the difficulty, but said the department must maintain high standards. ''We're using more and more technology, and we need people with an education," he said.

But the greater hurdle may be selling minority residents on joining a department that they have historically viewed with suspicion.

''The distrust is real; there's credibility to it," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church in the African-American Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. ''When you have the distrust on both sides, you'll have racial-profiling and some brutality and the lack of respect. You have the ugliness."

But Johnson and Pfleger agreed that the faith community can go far in bridging the gap.

''There's a lot of negative contacts with the police -- they're only coming because such and such is going on in the community or because of gangs or violence or drugs," Johnson said. ''What the faith leaders have going for them is they probably see more people on a Sunday morning than most folks, and they can stand up from that venue and say this is a way we can get more actively involved."

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