Photo with racial joke brings new heat on Elgin cops
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A photo that factored into the suspension of an Elgin police lieutenant has resurfaced as a point of contention for a community group looking for tougher action against him and another officer.
The photo, taken during the late 1990s on a social trip to Indianapolis, features officer Tom Wolek, who has served the Elgin Police Department for 16 years and now works as a detective in the gang unit, smiling alongside now-Lt. Sean Rafferty in front of a sign that refers to the Pulitzer Prize won by the Indianapolis Times in 1928 for its work exposing the Ku Klux Klan. In the photo, Rafferty is making "K" symbols with his hands.
Marcus Banner, co-founder of Our Neighborhoods Empowered, spoke before the city council last week accusing the police department of being too lenient on Rafferty and covering up misconduct by Wolek.
ONE was created as a place where minority voices could come together for individuals to use their collective strength and a unified voice, Banner said.
During his speech, Banner referenced Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda's earlier comment that the actions of Rafferty were "intolerable." But Banner said the action taken against Rafferty wasn't severe enough.
"You should have fired these two officers," Banner said. "Five days' suspension doesn't send the message of 'intolerable.'"
Rafferty served a five-day, unpaid suspension at the beginning of August after an internal affairs investigation. The suspension order referenced Rafferty's presence in the photo while making a joke about the Ku Klux Klan as well as his making a race-based joke in late 2009 or 2010 about fellow officer Phillipp Brown, who filed the complaint.
"Elgin Lt. Sean Rafferty has been suspended for intolerable behavior," Swoboda in a statement after the suspension. "The city of Elgin has express rules prohibiting discriminatory conduct and a zero-tolerance policy for any such actions."
Wolek declined to comment on the photo.
"The city did not receive any complaint of misconduct regarding officer Wolek in connection with this matter," Elgin Corporation Counsel William Cogley said. "The city nonetheless conducted an investigation into all aspects of this matter and did not find any evidence of misconduct by Officer Wolek."
Banner said one of his goals in speaking out is to bring attention to the need for an independent review authority for internal investigations. He said the dynamic of "friends investigating friends" does not lend itself to uncovering the truth.
Mayor David Kaptain said he had not seen the photo in question but trusted the work of those involved in the investigation and assumed they did their due diligence, ultimately keeping Wolek's name out of the mix.
But Kaptain said if there is a need for independent review in internal affairs, the city has to bring outside people in for the good of the community. As a regular proponent of transparency, Kaptain said he would raise that possibility.
The ONE organization is planning future actions to urge a more serious response by the police department.
"If they find the bad element and get them out of there, then you can go back to rebuilding the relationship between police and the community," Banner said. "People have no faith in the police because of all the wrong that's been done to them."
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Lenore Adkins contributed to this report.
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