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DeKalb interim police chief withdraws from top cop candidate search

City will begin national search in next few months, says City Manager

DeKALB – DeKalb's interim police chief John Petragallo has withdrawn himself from consideration to fill the top cop position permanently, saying he wants to move on to other career opportunities.

"I've poured my heart and soul into this job and I've loved it," Petragallo said Thursday. "I've loved the people and enjoyed serving them. Obviously this was a very difficult decision to make but it's kind of a milestone year for me. I'll turn 50, I'll have 26 full years [of service], and the thought of starting something from scratch is exciting."

Petragallo was appointed interim chief on May 28, 2019, following the retirement of former Chief Gene Lowery. Petragallo's been with the department since February 1994 and said his decision didn't come lightly, as he weighed his decades of service to DeKalb. He began as a patrol officer and moved up the ranks in the department as a detective, a member of the Illinois State Police's Drug Task Force, patrol sergeant, operations commander and deputy chief. He's also a graduate of the FBI Academy, and as interim chief, he oversees the department's $28.9 million budget and commands a 65-sworn officer team. He'll remain in the interim role until the job is filled.

The DeKalb Police Department's 2019 was significant, filled with leadership transitions, and a high-profile arrest of Elonte McDowell that put the department in the national and local media spotlight and involved Illinois State Police and DeKalb County State's Attorney weighing in on the arrest. With the announcement of Petragallo's impending departure, the department will undergo a search for their third police chief in one year.

Mayor Jerry Smith said Thursday while he's disappointed Petragallo won't be in the mix for the chief role, he applauds the seven and a half months he's lead the department.

"He's done a very commendable job over some very difficult circumstances over the last few months," Smith said. "I've really gotten to respect him deeply and wish him well."

The DeKalb Department still has much to plan for as they look to undergo another chief transition this year. They'll implement a body camera pilot program, res instate a 10-week citizens police academy, and continue community outreach to rebuild public trust after the controversial August arrest. An internal investigation is still underway involving Sgt. Jeffrey Weese, who was seen on footage that went viral placing McDowell in what a forensic police doctor described as a chokehold. A DeKalb County grand jury declined to bring formal charges against Weese, who remains on desk duty pending an ongoing internal investigation into whether he violated department policy.

Petragallo said he's committed to seeing the McDowell investigation through.

"I wish to affirm that I am committed to bringing the use of force incident stemming from the McDowell arrest to a resolution," Petragallo said in a letter Tuesday to the city announcing his decision. "I take this responsibility very seriously and am confident that the engagement efforts that have been, and will continue to be made, will bolster the relationship between the community and the police department."

What's next

City Manager Bill Nicklas also said while he regrets Petragallo's decision, he supports the interim chief's next steps "as a friend and colleague." He said Petragallo first approached him around Thanksgiving with indications that he wouldn't consider the role permanently.

"That was surprising," Nicklas said Thursday referring to Petragallo approaching him in November. "But as I said I know he's a very thoughtful person. His honest and thoughtful nature are evident in his difficult decision to pursue other interests."

Nicklas said Petragallo has been working toward his master's degree in public administration at Northern Illinois University and wishes to pursue a career change.

"He needs time, some space, from the rigors of the job to make any kind of firm decision," Nicklas said. "And he wasn't going to get that."

Petragallo said his youngest daughter will begin college in the fall, and with his older daughter already in college, that will leave him and his wife "empty nesters."

Now the department looks to Nicklas to begin the search for the new chief. Nicklas said he'll consider both internal and external candidates. He said he expects the search to be around 90 days beginning Thursday. Petragallo said he expects the new chief to come on board around the summer.

"We suspect the candidate will come from the Midwest," Nicklas said, adding he wants any future chief to be experienced in Illinois law. "We will post [the position] and then there will be a 30-day period for listing, and then candidates will come in and we'll sift through them."

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