The JJC campus is attempting to deal with the aftermath of a 2019 college investigation that accused police Chief Pete Comanda of making “racially based statements” and engaging in bullying tactics with his employees. The issue was first brought to the attention of the college campus as a whole in a Joliet Herald News article published on Jan. 15.
Documents acquired by The Blazer confirm that several employees who took part in an active shooter drill in August 2019 came forward with allegations that the chief had made “racist statements” and had created a hostile work environment in the police department.
Comanda, who has served as JJC’s police chief since 2002, denies there were ever any allegations of racism within the department. He says that the Herald News article used the word “racism” and that it was incorrect.
“There were allegations that I made a statement, but never of racism in the department. I know it may seem like playing word games, but there is a big difference,” said Comanda.
When asked why he thinks these allegations were made, Comanda stated, “[There are always going to be] some people that don’t like you, don’t get along with you, or are disgruntled, however you want to put it.”
In the fall of 2019, JJC administrators hired Chicago based law firm Scalambrino and Arnoff to investigate the allegations against Comanda. A Nov. 6 memo from Vice President of Administrative Services Rob Galick confirmed that “four individuals” substantiated claims that Comanda had made a racially insensitive comment during the college’s active shooter training on Aug. 15, 2019.
According to the report Galick cited, while a black officer was serving as a perpetrator for a training exercise, Comanda said, “go ahead, put them [zip-tie handcuffs] around his head and hang him from a tree.”
Comanda claims the statement was taken out of context. “The statement was a hundred percent twisted and a hundred percent exaggerated,” said Comanda. “When the question came of how to cuff him [the perpetrator] I told them, ‘Well, cuff him to the tree.’ Someone commented that the tree was too big, and I was told that I said to put three sets of cuffs around him to get him around the tree.”
Comanda continued. “There’s not one allegation in the final outcome letter that is true. There are some that may be exaggerated or taken out of context, but there was never anything that I feel the slightest bit of guilt about,” he said.
Comanda was placed on paid leave on Sept. 30 while the investigation took place and was initially set to return on Oct. 11, but later returned on Nov. 18. He said he did not return until November because of certain conditions in the performance improvement plan he was placed under that were “completely unacceptable.” Then, some “back-and-forth negotiations” took place before he returned to work.
Dr. Judy Mitchell, college president, explained the decision to place the chief on a personal improvement plan after allegations of bullying and intimidation were substantiated by five employees.
“This was followed by active discussion on the final recommendation outcome,” she said. “Since a consensus was not achieved on the final recommendation, Chief Comanda was ultimately placed on a clear performance improvement plan.
“As I shared with the Collegiate Club Council last Wednesday, the board chairman [Robert Wunderlich] made a statement at the special board meeting which can be found in the posted video which acknowledges his participation.” The college records all board meetings and posts the recordings on the college website.
Comanda said after the investigation was finished, he tried to move forward until two batches of anonymous letters were sent to both the Herald News and several minority JJC employees. He claims this was a continuation of people trying to “stir the pot” and was the work of people who wanted him gone.
In the report, Galick also stated that an employee told him about a speech Comanda made at a Christmas party, during which he “equated Black Lives Matter to a terrorist organization.”
Comanda said that his intention with that comment may have been misinterpreted. Galick said Comanda’s intent is of little importance. “Any statement in violation of the college’s position on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as JJC’s core values, cannot be tolerated,” Galick said in the memo.
Some students also expressed concerns that the college’s decision to keep Comanda on duty contradicts the college’s core values, which include diversity and inclusion.
“I do understand how this appears to be contradictory,” Mitchell acknowledged. “However, because a detailed performance improvement plan has been put into place, please know that the existence of this plan indicates and supports that we do not tolerate this behavior.”
At a Jan. 23 Student Government meeting, Mitchell tried to reassure students that “first and foremost” students are safe on the JJC campus. “As the president, it’s my utmost responsibility to take care of you, our students, our employees and our campus community,” Mitchell said. “So, I can reassure you that safety is not an issue.”
Since the release of the allegations, students have made it clear that they would not remain silent over the matter and have voiced concerns for their safety despite Mitchell’s reassurance. Several minority students and employees have questioned Comanda’s authority and ability to protect them.
“As a police chief you have a duty to fulfill, and the main duty should be to protect the students. If you have a history of bullying or racist comments, then as a black man I feel that I’m not safe,” said one JJC student who wished to remain anonymous.
One employee expressed disappointment with how the college has handled this situation. “As the nation’s first public community college, it’s kind of sad that we are still dealing with these issues and that we’re allowing them to happen,” said one employee who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s not supposed to be happening here in our educational setting.”
Many employees have encouraged students to voice their concerns if they feel the need to do so. “You all are never to be in a position where you are afraid to say anything… Keep speaking, keep doing whatever you need to do to be heard,” the employee said.
Some students have also openly wondered if Comanda is being disciplined less harshly than a non-white chief would be.
“My response is this,” said Mitchell. “Our procedures clearly outline how to manage disciplinary issues, and are not built on an individual’s race, color, beliefs, or gender.”
Comanda said the investigation has not changed his retirement plans. He is planning to retire in the summer of this year. He has also offered to speak with anyone at any time and answer any questions they may have.