By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - If potential police force recruits in Chicago fail to ask about police shootings and race relations, recruiters bring it up anyway.
At a time of U.S.-wide protests over police shootings of black men, the 12,000-strong Chicago police force, which is 23 percent African-American and 52 percent white, is trying to hire new officers, especially minority officers.
On Tuesday, 16-year veteran officer Denise Gathings, an African-American, addressed 20 potential recruits, 19 of them black and one Hispanic.
Gathings acknowledged the tension in Chicago's black community over statistics that show in the last eight years, of roughly 400 people shot and injured or killed by the city's police, 75 percent were black.
Chicago is about one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic.
“You have the right to be angry, that’s what we’re trying to change,” Gathings told the recruit hopefuls. “When these shootings happen, believe me, as police officers we are praying for the families just like you all.”
The message seems to be getting through.
Despite widespread criticism of Chicago's police from minority communities, in the current recruitment round, of 7,500 people who so far applied and paid to take the police entrance exam, 70 percent are minorities, said Soo Choi, Chicago's human resources commissioner.
About 75 percent of people who take the exam pass, said Choi. Recruits must then take background checks and a physical fitness test. An obstacle for young black people in Chicago can be a criminal record that bars them from becoming a cop.
"I'm open to all opportunities," said Jabotni Mailey, 31, who attended the recruiting meeting but was told his felony conviction would disqualify him.
Acting Police Superintendent John Escalante told Reuters he wants new recruits to change the department from within.
"I hope people would look at the job as a challenge, not just to help improve things in the city and neighborhoods where they grew up, but to help us internally... to build some trust and credibility in communities where we're struggling right now," he said.
Escalante was named after his predecessor stepped down in December due to protests over police shootings.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to change CPD culture after investigations showed police stuck with untrue narratives to make fatal shootings look justified. The U.S. Department of Justice is probing CPD's use of lethal force.
Despite outrage over high-profile shootings caught on video, Chicago police shootings last year dropped to 28 from an average of 49 a year over the previous seven years.
(Editing by Andrew Hay)