RACINE — A group of local black pastors is calling for the “complete restructuring” of the city Police and Fire Commission, claiming they lost their faith in them and in their selection process for a police chief.
About 30 members of the black community attended a 30-minute press conference Thursday morning at the Greater Mount Eagle Baptist Church, 929 State St., in response to the commission’s recent decisions regarding its chief search.
“There’s still discriminatory actions taking place in our community,” said the Rev. Fred Richmond Sr. of New Omega Baptist. “We’re not going to take this sitting down. It’s time for change.”
After the list of finalists was narrowed to two local ranking minority officers of the Racine Police Department because a third finalist dropped out, the commission decided Monday to reopen the search. On Wednesday the commission reversed that decision after meeting with city leaders and unanimously voted to move forward with its original plan to interview the remaining finalists.
Amid allegations of discrimination and public outcry from some in the community, the commission has remained tight-lipped on why it tried to reopen the search or why it then changed its mind. The Journal Times has filed an open records request for each of the commissioner’s votes from the closed session Monday, including who made the motion to reopen and who seconded it.
“They’re playing a lot of games,” said church member Yusuf Buckley, 43, of Racine.
It doesn’t make sense, pastors said, to overlook the finalists and review other candidates.
On Thursday several church leaders and community members called for reorganization — to expand and diversify the commission, though it’s a statutorily created body of which three of the five appointed members are minorities.
“Confidence in the process and confidence in the commission have been weakened,” said the Rev. Keith Evans, pastor of Mount Eagle, adding they hope to work with the mayor’s office to avert future problems.
They applauded Mayor John Dickert, but said additional changes still need to be made in the commission and within the police department regarding recruitment of minorities.
To begin, Evans called on the commission to open up its interviews with the two finalists and let the citizens assess for themselves the selection process and candidates in “an environment of complete transparency.”
The statutorial commission
There are some that have been on the commission for “too long,” church leaders said.
They singled out Commission Vice President Van Wanggaard, a local state senator, questioning his serving on a commission with authority over police officers and firefighters who may have signed the ongoing statewide recall petitions against him.
They also cited past concerns from 2003 when Wanggaard, also a former officer of the city department, was first appointed to the commission despite some objections.
“That conflict of interest is now magnified,” Evans said.
On Thursday Wanggaard dismissed those claims as “ridiculous.”
“Just because I know how the department operates or have specific knowledge on how individuals conducted their lives on the department does not preclude me from being a member of the PFC,” he said.
Of the commission’s recent decisions, Wanggaard would only say, “Well, obviously, we did reverse our decision — we’re following the process,” and declined to say if he voted to reopen the search.
The Rev. Melvin Hargrove is the only commissioner who has publicly said he had voted against reopening the search. The other commissioners have repeatedly declined to comment, referring all questions related to this week’s closed meetings to acting spokesman Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney, who could not be immediately reached Thursday.
The commission — further made up of President Charles Johnson; Marie Black; and Keith Rogers — is an independent body that has sole jurisdiction over hiring, promotions and discipline of police officers and firefighters, including the appointment of a chief.
By state statute, a police and fire commission is an independent body. It must have five members, who serve five-year terms, that are annually appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. The city commissioners serve on a voluntary basis and are not paid.
Black, who is serving her second term, is the only commissioner coming up for reappointment in May.
State statutes do allow for the removal of commissioners. They may be removed for “cause,” statutorily defined as “inefficiency, neglect of duty, official misconduct or malfeasance in office,” after a hearing by the council. Three-fourths of the council must vote for the removal — that would be 12 of the 15 city aldermen in Racine.