DeKALB – A DeKalb pastor said he believes the color of Elonte McDowell's skin is the reason a DeKalb grand jury declined to indict a DeKalb police officer who was seen on video appearing to choke McDowell with his arm during a high-profile arrest.
"To be honest with you, I was definitely disappointed but not surprised," said Pastor Joe Mitchell, of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. "We want our voices to be heard and our skin color to matter."
Mitchell has been a public voice since the Aug. 24 arrest of Aurora man Elonte McDowell, who is black. As police arrested McDowell, video shows a white DeKalb police sergeant holding McDowell’s neck in what a forensic police doctor has called a chokehold, rendering McDowell unconscious. A DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputy fired a stun gun at McDowell while he was on the ground.
Mitchell's church hosted a community meeting Sept. 5 after the arrest, where residents said they feared DeKalb police. He also organized a rally Nov. 16 where community members and Northern Illinois University students marched to the DeKalb Police Department to hand deliver a list of demands for organizational and policy change to interim Police Chief John Petragallo and DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith.
"I really think that what we saw on that video is really a microcosm of what's happening nationally," Mitchell said. "Law enforcement is not being held accountable when they're dealing with color."
Petragallo said he can understand frustrations with law enforcement and how national conversation surrounding policing practices has increased. He declined to comment on the grand jury's decision or the forensic police surgeon's findings.
"We just have to be committed to working with one another," Petragallo said Monday. "And talking about difficult issues. They're obviously present in our community, and I know we have made positive strides towards that end."
In the months after the arrest, Petragallo said he met with community leaders including Mitchell and the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP.
"I think it was a positive conversation," Petragallo said. "It went through the list that was provided to us after the march and we got context and perspective. So we've been working on addressing the issues they brought forward."
After the grand jury declined to indict the sergeant, it was announced by the city of DeKalb that the police department will conduct its own internal review to determine whether the police sergeant violated department policies during the arrest. He remains on desk duty, Petragallo confirmed.
Mitchell said it's imperative to encourage continuous dialogue when incidents such as this occur, and said he plans to hold another community meeting in the wake of the grand jury announcement. He said those involved in the internal investigation still have a decision to make.
"The pursuit of justice does not stop," he said. "I think citizens who want to see justice need to raise their voice. That may mean making a visit to a City Council meeting and this community speaking in their voices and letting their frustrations be heard. That's what really birthed the Black Lives Matter movement, was the mistreatment of people of color by law enforcement."
While being a fervent community advocate can take its toll, Mitchell said, he recharges through his faith and his desire to inspire others, he said.
"People in this community need to know somebody cares," Mitchell said. "Most people know if that officer looked like me, and if the person being the assailant looked like Mayor Smith's son, we all know it would have been handled a little bit differently. The scales of justice are not balanced."