Councilman defends chief, department after council silence on issue
By Ted Schnell • BocaJump | Oct. 28, 2011
Councilman John Prigge said Thursday he simply had had enough when he decided Wednesday night to break the Elgin City Council’s silence over “unfounded accusations and innuendo” about racism in the Elgin Police Department.
Stressing that he had been speaking on his own behalf Wednesday night and not on behalf of the council, Prigge said Thursday he had been biting his tongue each time the issue was raised publicly during recent City Council meetings.
The allegations erupted over the summer when Elgin police Lt. Sean Rafferty was suspended for five days without pay. The suspension order censured Rafferty over a 14-year-old photograph and over an incident in 2009 or 2010 when a “race-based joke” was sent as a text message to a black fellow officer. Rafferty is white.
Prigge defended the suspension, the police department, Chief Jeff Swoboda and Rafferty’s record as an Elgin cop when news of the suspension first broke. That made him the target of criticism on Sept. 14, when a resident speaking before the City Council demanded that Prigge resign over his insensitivity and that the city fire Rafferty and a second police officer who was pictured in the photo.
Two weeks after that incident, Prigge said he was not upset at being targeted — that comes with the territory of being an elected official who voices an opinion. But it did upset him that a resident could come before the City Council and make inflammatory remarks about a “great police chief and department” without a response from the city.
What he cannot stomach, Prigge explained Thursday, is the “accusations without evidence” and the innuendoes about racism focused on Chief Swoboda and the Elgin Police Department. He said Swoboda’s promotion to police chief was an exceptional choice, and that the department has been doing exceptional work for a long time.
“The department and the chief are being beaten like a piñata over this issue,” Prigge said during Wednesday’s council meeting. “Citizens should never tolerate racism by police … but we should not tolerate unfounded allegations and innuendos.”
As he spoke Wednesday night, Prigge explained that there are plenty of effective venues to lodge complaints about racism — venues that lead to a resolution. He said the first is the head of the agency, such as the chief in the police department. But if residents do not feel comfortable doing that or feel the response was inadequate, then they can go to City Hall and speak with someone in the administration. They also have the choice of contacting a council member.
For someone to come to a public meeting and throw around unsubstantiated accusations, Prigge said, as happened during two recent City Council meetings, should not be tolerated any more than racism.
“If they are divisive, inflammatory and unsubstantiated, it’s wrong,” he said.
Prigge specifically referred to the allegations that Rafferty and the other officer in the photo were linked to a “domestic terrorist group”— the Ku Klux Klan; that the second officer in the photo had done something wrong; and that police had participated in some kind of cover up.
In fact, Prigge said, there was never an allegation of officer involvement with the KKK; and no allegation had been made against the second officer – and city officials had indicated in July that the second officer had been investigated anyway and cleared of wrongdoing.
Finally, Prigge said, the issue in relation to Rafferty had been addressed and punishment meted out — meaning there was no cover up.
Failure to speak out against such allegations, he continued, would allow them to spread like a poison throughout the city.
Council’s silence a mistake
When he spoke during Wednesday’s meeting, Prigge said he feared the council’s silence on the issue had been a mistake. By its silence, he continued, the council may have been signaling unintentionally that there is merit to the accusations and innuendo.
“Never have I read anywhere about managing others where it says there is something positive about not giving positive reinforcement,” Prigge said Thursday. “Would you ever tell you children ‘as long as I am not saying something critical, you can assume I love you?’ If someone is doing a good job, you have to tell them.
“We had done that for public works after the blizzard and the storm cleanup, we’ve done that for the fire department,” he continued. Prigge went on to say the police department has been doing a good job, noting the arrest of a suspect in the murder of a child one week after the shooting, as well as the department’s arrest before that murder of a suspect who had a sawed-off shotgun up his sleeve.
Prigge said the City Council had an opportunity to deal with the issue “internally” in September, but that opportunity was canceled. He declined to discuss details, except that he was led to believe then that the issue would settle down.
Then, on Oct. 12, a representative of the Elgin Drug and Gang Task Force raised the issue publicly before the council a second time. While thanking the City Council for its support, the task force representative mentioned concern about the allegations related to the police department and the KKK.
Prigge again held his tongue, but it was the final straw.
On Wednesday, Oct. 26, during the announcements portion toward the end of the Elgin City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Prigge said he could contain himself no longer.
Saying he was speaking on his own behalf and not on behalf of the City Council, Prigge spoke of his support for and confidence in Chief Swoboda and the Elgin Police Department.
He also pointed out that during the Oct. 12 City Council meeting, when the issue was raised a publicly before the council a second time, the other officer in the photo was across the street from City Hall at police headquarters, where he was working extra hours on the investigation into the murder of 5-year-old Eric Galarza Jr. That officer, Prigge said, was among those who helped close the investigation two days later with the arrest of a suspect in Galarza’s murder just a week earlier.
He also reminded the council Wednesday night that there have been past instances in which the City Council did not remain silent in the face of misinformation or groundless accusations. He pointed out specifically one meeting earlier this year in which a resident affiliated with Elgin OCTAVE vilified the city over its high tax rate in relation to those of other communities. Councilman Bob Gilliam halted the speaker over the use of incorrect information and gave him a sheet of paper with accurate data. Gilliam also told the speaker he should get his facts right before he makes another such criticism.
That was not the first time and it will not be the last, Prigge told the council.
“I felt someone on the council had to speak out,” he explained on Thursday.
Photo, text message sparked controversy
The photo at the center of the controversy was taken 14 years ago in Indianapolis. It shows Rafferty and another Elgin police officer, both in street clothes and off duty, smiling while having their photo taken while standing in front of a monument honoring the Indianapolis Times for its efforts to expose the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. In the photo, Rafferty is seen holding each of his hands in the shape of the letter K.
The text message, which officials described as a “race-based joke,” was sent in 2009 or 2010.Rafferty’s suspended occurred in August.