DeKALB – Monday's virtual town hall hosted by the City of DeKalb was not as widely attended as similar community conversations around racial injustice and equity reform in the community have been, though council did address a few of the demands made by the local Black Lives Matter group in recent days.
"I've been looking at the feasibility of each of the individual ideas that were brought forth and some of them are easy and some of them are not," said Ward 5 Alderman Scott McAdams.
McAdams was addressing the recent call for police to work in conjunction with citizen-led groups, as an oversight committee or, per McAdams' suggestion, as social service agencies to better address 911 crisis through non-violent means. McAdams referenced the Aurora Police Department, who he said operates with trained professionals.
"When they get a call, their dispatchers screen for mental illness and if they feel the situation is not secure they send a uniformed officer with them," McAdams said. "So I'd like to look at different programs that are already in place and see if we can implement those. That seems like it's a doable one here."
The comments came during Monday's Committee of the Whole meeting devoted to a virtual town hall – hosted by the city council in their new meeting spot, the DeKalb Police Library after the move to the new city hall, 164 E. Lincoln Highway, the first time in 50 years the council hasn't met in the chambers at the DeKalb Municipal Building. There were about 40 participants at one point during the hour-long Zoom call, in stark contrast to the 200-plus audience at other virtual race forums in past weeks, including a county government conversation June 4 and the Human Relations Commission meeting a week ago.
The council did not take up any action regarding the demands Monday, and City Manager Bill Nicklas said the council won't do so until July 13, following the next Human Relations Commission meeting July 7, during which time the committee will put forward a list of recommended steps to address concerns collected from the community in past weeks.
On Friday, the Black Lives Matter chapter presented city officials with a list of demands at an outdoor town hall at Hopkins Park, including implementing policy reform in the police department including use of force tactics, de-escalation and bias training, prohibiting destruction of misconduct records. The group also called for getting rid of cash bail at the DeKalb County Jail, cutting police department budgets in half and reallocating funds to social services and calling for all officers to wear body cameras while on patrol.
Additional demands called for firing officers if they have been the subject of misconduct records or have used choke holds.
The group also called for neighborhood revitalization on DeKalb north side, such as turning the long-vacant, condemned Campus Cinemas building at the corner of West Hillcrest Drive and Blackhawk Road into a grocery store and for912 Edgebrook Drive to be demolished and turned into affordable, safe housing.
In the city council meeting which followed, Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris said though the city hasn't yet announced it, it's moving forward with plans to demolish 912 Edgebrook and turn the empty space into a park for the neighborhood.
She echoed McAdams' sentiments saying some of the demands made were 'easy' and other's were 'in direct conflict with some of the findings of the Annie Glidden North Revitalization Plan,' a community-led initiative to bring development economic stability to the city's north side.
Morris said the AGN plan recommended finding ways to reduce population density in the Annie Glidden North neighborhoods, and putting up more apartment complexes at 912 Edgebrook (long vacant) would contrast with that intent.
"Our plan is to put a park in there, a pocket park and to make it a cute little nieghborhood thing that would help reduce population density in the space," Morris said. "There was a long list of demands. But I think that certainly we want to make sure that we as a city council address every single one of these issues and explain why they're great ideas and maybe why they may not happen. I just want to make clear that I am absolutely in support of moving to ensuring that we have real equality in our community."
Ward 6 Alderman Mike Verbic called for the city to work with community members on coming up with a plan of action for implementation.
"What are those actionable items that we can build together?" Verbic said. "That will take a community to build those items, to set measures, set goals, have an idea of how we're doing as a community. Certainly we'll need to engage our police department, what is possible, what is in our authority to work as hard as we can toward eliminating injustice."
DeKalb resident JJ Wett urged the council to keep in mind moving forward the depth of institutional racism, and how it impacts not just police structure but others.
"I just want to clarify that this while racial injustice is not just about police brutality," Wett said. "Racial injustice includes economic justice, health care justice, as well as educational justice. I encourage you to try to fix all of that with the upcoming budget."
DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith said he thinks he's "a better mayor than he was last week" following concerted push back of his remarks made during Friday's Hopkins Park town hall, in which organizers called his words "empty promises."
"I was asked to say a few things and it was clear that what I was trying to do that evening did not resonate with the audience," Smith said. "I appreciate that. I respect that. And it was clear that those comments, even though they were from the heart and trying to show the human side of the mayor as it relates to these issues, it was the closest time that I've ever been booed off the stage."
Smith said following the town hall that evening, he was able to continue face-to-face conversations with participants and better listen to their concerns.
"I'm a stronger mayor than I was a week ago."