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Local News

Will County officials grapple with calls for racial justice

Officials float ideas on public health, hiring, policing

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As residents demonstrate against racial injustice, Will County officials appear to have taken notice of their calls for reform.

During last week's Will County Board meeting, members discussed ways they could address protesters' concerns.

Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort, highlighted efforts in other communities like Franklin County, Ohio, which have tackled issues like racial health disparities and hiring more people of color in government.

Moustis floated the idea of asking the Will County Health Department if the board could do anything to improve any local health disparities. Around the country, public health data show African Americans and Latinos are more likely to experience the most devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As a county, we are responsible for the health of our community," he said during the meeting.

In Will County, African American residents appear to be over-represented among those who've died from COVID-19. According to the Will County Health Department's latest data from early May, African Americans made up nearly 27% of those who had died from the novel disease. Only about 12% of Will County's population is African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest estimate.

Denise Winfrey, the interim Will County executive, spoke highly of efforts like those in Franklin County, which she said declared racism was a "national health crisis."

Winfrey, D-Joliet, mentioned another action other counties have taken: hiring an officer dedicated to diversity and inclusion in local government. She said other counties have used this official to take an "objective look" at policies like how often they hired people of color.

Winfrey said when she first became speaker, she wanted to examine Will County's hiring practices, but it was "put on the back burner." With talk of racial justice at the forefront of public attention, she thought it was a good time to revisit the issue.

"Looking at things happening across the country, we got to get going on this," she said.

Winfrey said her office has already been formulating a possible job description of such an officer in Will County. She said that person's goal would be to ensure county government was "making an effort to include people who look different."

Her idea for a diversity officer earned vocal support from across the aisle. Minority Leader Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, said such an officer could strengthen the county's hiring policies.

Specific to policing, another county board member suggested it would be helpful to learn more about local procedures when it came to use of force and training.

Jackie Traynere, D-Bolingbrook, said she wanted to ask for the Will County Sheriff's Office to give board members a rundown of its policies. She emphasized the idea didn't come from any specific concern with the sheriff's office, but thought it was important that "we all be educated."

Winfrey agreed those were "reasonable questions." She said the sheriff's office sent her a letter explaining it requires "mandatory annual training in use of force, cultural diversity, racial profiling and discrimination, and ethics."

During last week's board meeting, some GOP members argued law enforcement was getting unfairly criticized. Still, Moustis, while voicing support for police officers, also said he and many in his district acknowledge the existence of systemic racism.

"I think that the majority of folks that I come in contact with do recognize the fact that there is not a level playing field," he said.

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