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'Blatant' Racism Shows Need For Water Department Audit, Black Aldermen Say

By Heather Cherone | May 17, 2017 5:48am | Updated on May 19, 2017 11:32am
 Investigators found racist messages sent by Chicago police officers and water department employees.
Investigators found racist messages sent by Chicago police officers and water department employees.
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Flickr/Joselito Tagarao

CITY HALL — In the last six months, investigators uncovered evidence that employees of two city agencies — the Department of Water Management and the Police Department — sent and received racist messages without facing any discipline.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel demanded the resignation of the head of the Water Department Friday amid an investigation by the city's Office of Inspector General that uncovered that water commissioner Barrett Murphy received racist emails that mocked former President Barack Obama and an African-American deputy commissioner.

In January, an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found that officers "expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, gender and national origin" on social media without penalty.

Matt McGrath, a spokesman for Emanuel, called the racist messages "antithetical to our values as Chicagoans."

"We take these concerns very seriously, which is why the mayor acted quickly to install new leadership at" the Water Department, McGrath stated. "When he did, the mayor let incoming commissioner Randy Connor know in no uncertain terms that he will have the support and resources necessary to address the problem. We’re also continuing to work with the [Office of Inspector General] on their ongoing investigation, and are committed to rooting out a workplace culture that is antithetical to our values as Chicagoans.”

Racism has permeated the Water Department, and city officials must conduct a thorough audit to "eradicate this toxic culture," the City Council's Black Caucus said Wednesday.

“While we are deeply disturbed by reports of blatant racist language and behavior by these high-level city employees, we only wish we could say we are surprised,” said 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, caucus chairman. “The pervasive culture of racism at the Water Department has been an open secret for years. We hope that this moment can serve as a wake-up call for all those in the department and in other departments where this behavior is still tolerated or even encouraged.”

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) praised Emanuel for picking Conner, who is African-American.

"Mr. Conner is highly qualified for this role, and we are confident in his ability to address this challenge head on,” Austin said.

The report released in January by the Justice Department found the Police Department "tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force" in Chicago.

According to the report:

• One officer posted two images of slain black men with a caption reading "Hopefully one of these pictures will make the black lives matter activist organization feel a lot better!"

• Other officers posted disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims, with one officer saying that "the only good Muslim is a f------ dead one."


Emanuel promised Chicagoans in January that racist remarks made by police on social media would not go unpunished.

The probe by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson is ongoing, officials said.

The Sun-Times reported that the racist emails were discovered after allegations were made that the son of a former alderman had used his city email account to sell guns.

Paul Hansen, the son of former 44th Ward Ald. Bernard Hansen, was fired from his position as a district superintendent in the Water Department as part of the probe, officials said.