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updated: 7/30/2011 5:55 PM

Councilwoman: Elgin cop suspension shows festering racial problem

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  • Elgin police Lt. Sean Rafferty has been suspended for five days concerning two racially charged incidents.

    Elgin police Lt. Sean Rafferty has been suspended for five days concerning two racially charged incidents.
    Daily Herald file photo


An Elgin police supervisor has been suspended for five days, the result of two racially charged incidents, including his appearance in a photo more than a decade ago in which he seems to support the Ku Klux Klan, police said.

Lt. Sean Rafferty, a veteran officer within the police department, starts his unpaid suspension next week. He did not return phone calls Saturday.

According to the suspension order from Police Chief Jeffrey Swoboda, Rafferty, who is white, engaged in "unacceptable off-duty conduct."

In a photograph taken in the 1990s and seen briefly by a Daily Herald reporter, Rafferty and an unidentified man are standing near a historical marker in Indianapolis that honors the Indiana Times. The marker mentions that the newspaper won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Ku Klux Klan. The photograph shows a smiling Rafferty in street clothes, leaning toward the marker and making the letter "K" with both of his hands. The unidentified man is also smiling and standing between Rafferty and the marker.

"The evidence has shown that you posed for a photograph while making a joke in connection with the Ku Klux Klan, "Swoboda wrote. "Such conduct is unacceptable, whether on-duty or off-duty."

The suspension order also states that as a lieutenant in late 2009 or 2010, Rafferty texted a "raced-based joke" to Elgin Officer Phillipp Brown, who is black. Rafferty sent several text messages to Brown, including one that contained a photograph of Brown, the only black member of the baseball team of Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream. Rafferty's message accompanying the photo said, "Which one are you?", according to the suspension order.

"The evidence has shown that such a text message was a race-based joke based on Officer Brown's race and his presence in a high school photograph," Swoboda wrote. "Such conduct is unacceptable whether on-duty or off-duty."

Rafferty's conduct violated several police department rules and regulations, as well as certain provisions listed in the city's employee handbook. Some of those policies are meant to protect city workers from race-based exclusion and harassment.

"When discriminatory conduct occurs, the circumstances are thoroughly investigated and discipline is imposed," City Manager Sean Stegall said in a statement.

Rafferty signed the order Tuesday afternoon and Mayor Dave Kaptain confirmed that the city council learned of Rafferty's punishment Wednesday during a closed session.

Reaction was mixed among members of the Elgin City Council contacted Saturday. One black member said it's symptomatic of a long-standing problem, but another stood by Rafferty's good record and questioned the age of the incidents.

Councilwoman Tish Powell, the only black woman on the city council, said the matter shows "race is a long-standing and obviously unresolved issue in the Elgin Police Department that needs to be dealt with."

She said she has not seen the photograph and declined to discuss whether the five-day suspension was appropriate.

"What I am concerned about is how these incidents affect the public's trust and the police department's ability to treat all residents in a fair and unbiased manner," Powell said. "I'm also concerned about how this will affect morale and trust internally within the police department."

She also pointed to the $2.4 million federal lawsuit that seven black officers filed against the city and the police department in the 1990s, alleging they were subjected to a harsh racial environment. While the cases were either dismissed or settled with no monetary awards, Powell said Rafferty's behavior shows the department still has a lot of work to do.

But Councilman John Prigge said Rafferty's police work speaks for itself, as his name is among those typically mentioned in Elgin's higher profile investigations. He also noted that four people he talked to questioned why the Ku Klux Klan incident, which occurred more than a decade ago, is still relevant.

Prigge also commended Swoboda for his handling of the situation.

"I think Chief Swoboda is doing exactly what he has to do," Prigge said.

Jerrod Olszewski, the attorney representing Officer Brown, declined to comment because he had not seen the suspension order. Brown also declined to comment.

Kaptain said he could not discuss personnel issues. Swoboda did not return a phone call for comment and Stegall could not be reached for further comment.

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