DeKALB – On Tuesday, Mayor Jerry Smith responded to a weekend rally by Northern Illinois University students and community members calling for changes in the city’s policing practices.
More than 100 people marched to the city’s police station Saturday and hand-delivered a list of demands, which were received by Smith, interim Police Chief John Petragallo and City Manager Bill Nicklas. The list calls for hiring practices that increase diversity on the police force and having the department hold regular diversity training for officers. It seeks disciplinary action against the three DeKalb officers involved in using force in the August arrest of Elonte McDowell; that the department forms a Human Relations Committee composed of community members who would review department policies and procedures, and that officers be required to interact and form relationships with community members from minority and underprivileged backgrounds.
City officials have heard the demands and are taking them seriously, Smith said, adding his hope was that civil discourse would continue to improve relations between the police and residents.
“My dream is that, within a short period of time, DeKalb will be known as a showcase community in how true social justice can be attained through thoughtful and honest discussions with one another,” Smith said during Tuesday’s council meeting in response to the rally.
Smith commended the demonstrators for being peaceful and civil.
Elexus Hughes-Woods, president of Northern Illinois University’s Black Student Union, was one of the organizers of Saturday’s demonstration, which included representatives from the NIU chapter of the NAACP and members of DeKalb’s New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. She said she wants members of minority communities in DeKalb to have peace of mind when they interact with police officers.
“As a community, we’re scared,” Hughes-Woods said Tuesday in an email. “We shouldn’t have to fear those who have sworn to protect us. In order to combat the mistreatment of black and brown people here in DeKalb, and across the country, we have decided to simply ask for the respect and peace of mind that we deserve.”
Senior Pastor Joe Mitchell of New Hope Church said he was heartened to see young people take up the mantle for change, and said he’s been meeting regularly with Petragallo.
“Myself personally, I’ve had quite a bit of conversation with Chief Petragallo,” Mitchell said. “A couple mornings with coffee, and we’ve had very good conversation. To Chief Petragallo’s credit, there are things being done behind the scenes. I think most people will understand that when you’re dealing with institutions and systems, change doesn’t happen overnight.”
Mitchell said he hopes at least some of the demands will be addressed quickly. Petragallo said Tuesday that he is working on addressing them.
In October, the department received a Tier II accreditation from the state, a stamp of approval for departments with policies that meet certain standards in policing, the report showed. The report showed no official complaints about racially based policing were filed against the department in 2018 or in 2019, despite the controversy after McDowell’s arrest.
The Aug. 24 arrest garnered national media attention after video surfaced that showed a DeKalb police sergeant subdued McDowell by wrapping an his arm around McDowell’s neck. The video also showed a DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputy then fired a stun gun at McDowell while he was on the ground. DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott has said the deputy’s use of the stun gun was appropriate.
Petragallo has maintained since August that he’s unable to discuss specifics about the incident because it is under investigation – the DeKalb County States Attorney’s Office is still reviewing the Illinois State Police report findings. He said he was already working on implementing change in the department before Saturday’s demonstration.
“Some of the items brought up, we began to address following the church meeting [in September], and we’re working to continue to address other concerns,” Petragallo said.
Mitchell said he knows he’s a frequent voice advocating for community issues, but said he gets it from his faith and his upbringing, and thinks the more the community talks about tough topics, the better.
“[My parents] taught me from a very young age,” Mitchell said, “that love is expressed in how we treat everybody, not just people we like or know.”