NIU, DeKalb Police Focus On Connecting Communities

Jun 2, 2015

A couple of years ago, the police departments of DeKalb and Northern Illinois University hired new chiefs. They found they had their work cut out for them.  Supporting one another was their main focus and, so far, they have been working on that relationship.

Chief Gene Lowery, of the DeKalb Police Department, and Chief Tom Phillips, of the Northern Illinois University Police Department, agreed they had some work to do to provide support for the community. One big task was closing the gap between the two departments and getting residents involved.

Chief Lowery's initiatives began when he started in May 2012. He says he needed to connect to the neighborhood by way of programs that would build relationships.

"Well, you know, on our end, I have to reflect back to when I got here in 2012,” he said. “Towards the end of 12, we introduced a program called 20/20 ‘Vision for the Future.’

“What that was, was 20 initiatives in 20 months,” he says. “Of those initiatives, there were numerous programs directed at connecting to the community. Some of those included resident-officer programs, and that’s where a police officer moves into a neighborhood that’s distressed for some reason. It could be quality-of-life issues, crime. It’s usually both of those.”

They recently had a basketball game against the residents of University Village.  The turnout was bigger than they expected. The chiefs also have a resident ride-along program, where residents can ride with patrolling officers with permission.   

Chief Phillips said that working with Chief Lowery has made a significant difference in the way his department supports the city.

“I was fortunate when I came that Chief Lowery had already been here a year,” Phillips said. “It was a little different than what I was used to; I’ve been working university policing for 20 years in Chicago.

“Universities I have worked at in the city was always integrated with patrol and response capabilities with the municipal police,” Phillips said.

He said that cooperation has not always been as strong between NIU and DeKalb police -- even though students at the university don't stay exclusively on campus.

“They live, they study, and they socialize, not only on the campus but around the campus,” Chief Phillips said. “And so when I came here, and I know they had just introduced the co-policing,”

“I met Chief Lowery; I said I want to double down on this. I want to be able to integrate our officers together because we should be working together,” Phillips said, “and we both want a safe city and safe campus so our officers should be able to work together. And we have had tremendous success doing that.”

That's why sometimes you’ll see officers from DeKalb and the university behind the same vehicle that has been pulled over.

“Early on, I started having our officers ride together with the DeKalb officers in the area within our patrol jurisdiction. So NIU police do not patrol the entire city; they patrol an area that we call the CLERY jurisdiction,” Phillips said, “because we are required to report crime stats for a clear geography around the campus.”

Chief Phillips said, “We were already in those areas and providing support to DeKalb police.

“But when you put two officers in a car it also breaks down the barriers. Not only between the officers and the community but between the departments.  And we’ve had great success with that.” 

Chief Lowery agrees that departments working together is an opportunity for the departments to build on their collaborating efforts.

“So it’s all about blending both parties’ missions and doing it harmoniously instead of contesting each other, or in an adversarial manner,” Lowery said. “I think that’s really begun to evolve in a positive way, so I don’t think any of its rocket science. I really think it’s communication, relationship building and just doing the right thing.”

Both chiefs have plans to get officers on bicycles to patrol the same area consistently. That’s a component that has been missing from the communities.  When officers are familiar with their area, they will feel a little more connected to those communities.

Quest for Diversity

With national attention on race relations between officers and the communities they represent, how do police departments find and retain officers? It's not so simple.

DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery says his department has not been as racially diverse as he would like.

Gene -- he likes to be called Gene -- says he would love to say he’s diversified his department since he’s been the chief, but he finds it difficult to recruit potential officers because of the lack of sustained culture.

He says officers want to know what about their own culture is in the community.

“So we have now added two police officers of color,” Lowery said. “We’ve added some female police officers as well. One of our tentative hires coming up this fall when we have our next opening coming up is another African-American police officer.”

Chief Lowery says adding diversity to his department won’t happen overnight, but he’s working hard to make necessary changes.

“I have to do it as my department allows through attrition, retirement, resignation, whatever,” he says, “termination if the case may be. And take that opportunity to advocate for building a department that’s more representative of the community.

“So we’re well on our way to doing that; I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Even with the DeKalb Police Department not being as diversified as Chief Lowery would like, statistics show there have been no excessive force complaints or any allegations against any of his officers except for one.

“In 2014 we handled over 44,000 events and over 19,000 911 calls,” Lowery says. “So when you look at that number of police contacts and how often police contacts can go wrong and we’re not getting those complaints, I think that’s pretty good.”

Lowery also says the function of the police officer has changed, since officers nationwide spend a lot of time in their patrol cars.  There has been some disconnect from the community and, as a result, the community doesn’t see the police as a helpful component to the neighborhood.

“There were a couple of things that happened,” he says. “You had a greater demand for service in cities that didn’t have the resources to meet those needs, and then technology was moving along with it.”

Some residents may feel DeKalb’s police department might be adding officers of color because it makes them look good.

“It kind of makes me feel bad that that perception is out there, because I know my heart is in the right place” he says. “I know that it’s important for me to have a racially diverse community -- not for the sake of ‘I need to do it to look good;’ I need to do it to serve this community; I need to do that to make this community safer, to enhance the quality of life, to lower crime. That’s why I need to do that.

“I find that argument quite offensive, and I think if anyone got the time to get to know how I am or the way I approach things, they would know that that’s not true.”

Chief Lowery wants to be able to add to his department and become a lot more diverse, but doing so on a budget may take some time.