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Thursday, April 12, 2007 02:33 pm

Stepping up

Rejected Springfield firefighter applicant shines as Chicagoland police officer

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Untitled Document Maybe you remember Michael Newman. For a few months, in the summer of 2005, he made news as the guy who wanted to be a Springfield firefighter but was disqualified by something hinkey in his background check. What set him apart from the scores of other would-be hosers who fell into that same category was the fact that Newman had already passed background checks given by the Illinois Department of Corrections, Wells Fargo Bank, and the Springfield Urban League, as well as the U.S. Navy, which had given him top-secret clearance.
One other difference: Newman is black. The Springfield Fire Department has taken a lotta heat for having only two African-Americans on a force of 200 firefighters. Newman scored high enough on the written test to be ranked in the top band. He had already passed the physical and the psychological evaluation. What caused the Springfield Civil Service Commission to disqualify Newman? To this day, we don’t know. The mysterious transgression that prevented him from earning the right to strap on a caution-yellow raincoat and 40 pounds of equipment and enter burning buildings, possibly to save lives, has never been revealed. The quest to find out is what brought Newman into the news [see “Smoke and mirrors,” July 28, 2005]. Like many people, he assumed that reporters must have some kind of magical power that allows us to get information that normal people can’t obtain, and he came to us for help getting the answers. When we couldn’t find out, Newman hired an attorney. Eventually city officials offered to provide the information to Newman, provided that he would first sign a waiver promising not to sue. He refused. I didn’t hear from Newman again until late last year, when he called to tell me that he was in a police academy in Chicago, training to be a law-enforcement officer in his aunt’s hometown, suburban Harvey, Ill. He graduated as the outstanding recruit in the Chicago Police Department’s Metropolitan Recruit Group 06-103A, which included officers hired by police departments in the suburbs of Orland Park, Grayslake, Niles, Hillside, Chicago Heights, Forest Park, Park Forest, Arlington Heights, Elmwood Park, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Newman was sworn in Dec. 26. He didn’t last long as a Harvey cop. As anyone who can Google undoubtedly knows, Harvey’s police department operates by its own set of rules, which until recently included keeping a wooden paddle in the jail for use on school-age troublemakers. The department is so bad, a multiagency task force that included the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Unit raided the Hervey Police Department’s files in late January, seizing reports that enabled the task force to solve several murder cases that the HPD had allowed to languish. Newman and three other HPD officers — two rookies who had been his academy classmates and longtime lead detective Tony DeBois  — left Harvey to join the police force in the adjacent suburb of Markham. They were sworn in April 4.
For anyone keeping count, that makes another background check Newman passed. Markham Police Chief Paschal Crawford says he found nothing in Newman’s history that would disqualify him from being a peace officer, much less a firefighter. “I don’t understand it. I don’t know what criteria they used to eliminate him,” he says. “We did a background check, and he came through with flying colors. He seems like a really nice young guy. Maybe I’ll have to pull him in and grill him!”
Kent Gray, a member of the civil-service commission — but one who was absent when the panel voted on Newman — says he has no idea what disqualified Newman and wishes that city officials could tell him. “Personally, if I had my druthers, I would allow a candidate who has not made it through the background investigation or the psychological evaluation to know why they didn’t,” Gray says. City attorneys have convinced the panel that it’s not a good idea, but Gray says that the commission has altered other procedures since — and, in part, because of — Newman’s disqualification. Now, when commissioners review a police or fire department candidate’s background information and psychological evaluations, the name, race, and sex of each applicant has been removed. “Now, no matter what the civil-service system does, we do it equally to everybody,” Gray says. Newman, however, isn’t eager to try his luck in Springfield again. “I spoke with one of the retired black officers in Springfield, who told me Springfield could do one of two things to your career: either enhance it or totally destroy it,” he says. It’s a chance that, for now, he’s not ready to take.
“I’d like to stay somewhere where I know I’m appreciated and I don’t have to worry about that type of thing,” he says. “I figure, as a police officer, I shouldn’t have to worry about the department. I should worry about the crime on the street, not about my career being in jeopardy every day that I go to work.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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