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DeKalb Incident Highlights Traffic Stop Disparities

Sarah Jesmer
An attendee looks on as law enforcement leaders speak to community members at a meeting a month after the August 2019 incident.

Over the past few months, in the wake of a controversial traffic stop that resulted in a 30-day suspension of an officer, DeKalb community members have continued conversations about police accountability. 

A viral video showed several officers including Sgt. Jeffrey Weese attempting to physically restrain Elonte McDowell during the Aug. 24, 2019 stop.

McDowell was pinned to the ground and was heard on the video repeatedly yelling, "I can't breathe." McDowell, who has a criminal history in DeKalb County, was charged with possession of marijuana with an intent to deliver. He pleaded not guilty.

Many residents voiced their disapproval about the incident at community meetings and in a November protest march.

Joe Mitchell is a pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. 

“The only thing that has changed is cell phones and video cameras, catching what's going on,” Mitchell said. “But these kinds of incidents aren’t new to our society.”

Last fall, protestors marched to the DeKalb police station where Nikitha Ballari, president of the Northern Illinois University National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, gave Interim Police Chief John Petragallo and Mayor Jerry Smith a list of demands for increasing transparency and accountability.  The list called for regular diversity training for the department and the development of a human relations committee.

Credit Noah Johnson
In November, demonstrators marched from NIU's Center for Black Studies to the DeKalb Police Department to demand accountability following the controversial arrest in August.

Weeks after the protest, Ballari continued to engage with Petragallo. She spent time with her organization and combed through the department’s existing policies. 

“[The officer] had no reason to start choking Elonte but he did,” Ballari said. “We all saw the video and it’s blatantly obvious. [That’s] the kind of disrespect that the police department is willing to tolerate toward members of color in the community.”

Mayor Jerry Smith said he received 41 calls from individuals who were critical of the conduct that the viral video depicted. 

“I think the chief and those in our police department know those policies much better than I do,” Smith said. “But I would hope that anyone working for the City of DeKalb carries out their duties in a manner that's not only in the letter of the law but that's appropriate for whatever the circumstance may be.  When there’s a question about that, we’re going to look into it and I think that’s what we’re doing now with the police department.” 

Earlier this year, the police department announced the contents of itsdisciplinary agreement with Sgt. Weese.

The agreement outlines several violations of department policies related to use of force, biased enforcement, and standard of conduct. He was suspended without pay for 30 days and required to take training in cultural competency.

Per the agreement, Sgt. Weese acknowledged that his conduct on Aug. 24, 2019 violated the policies and procedures of the DeKalb Police Department, but the agreement states that it is not an admission of any illegal conduct.

According to the department, Sgt. Weese is a tenured police officer for the City of DeKalb who had "an exemplary service record with positive community engagement" prior to this incident.

“It doesn’t sound that serious for what he did,” Ballari with NIU NAACP said. “But it’s really better than nothing because we weren’t sure if he was actually going to be facing any punishment."

Mayor Smith said he was satisfied with the police department’s actions.

“This was a situation where nobody was going to be completely happy -- not only with what occurred but with the findings of the grand jury and the findings of the internal investigation,” Smith said. “I would hope that we could put this particular experience behind us and that we can consider it an educational experience.”

He said he wants to continue the dialogue with community members. 

Petragallo said his department always has held his officers to high standards and holds their officers accountable.

Credit Sarah Jesmer
DeKalb Interim Chief of Police John Petragallo speaks to an attendee at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in September 2019

“I think that these conversations are good,” Petragallo said. “I know that they are hard for all parties. But it's not a bad thing to talk about hard topics like police accountability and trust because if that is on your mind you get a better awareness of community concerns and you address them. For me that is healthy for the community and the police department.”

Petragallo said he wants his department to spend more time doing training, but time and understaffing makes it difficult. Though he feels that his officers do the best they can and that most traffic stops go well, he said communication between officers and residents being pulled over sometimes falls short.

“How we communicate with someone in the car can have an impact on the stop,” Petragallo said. “ We are trained in de-escalation techniques and this is probably one of our most important tools:  how we talk to folks.”

He said he feels that the conversations between the City and community members since the incident have been constructive.

McDowell was stopped again in March 2020 for improper lane usage and leaving the scene.

The Illinois Department of Transportation tracks traffic stops across the state.

Credit Bharat Kale, done in collaboration with the data, devices, and interaction Laboratory joint effort of the Department of Computer Science and School of Art and Design at Northern Illinois University
Source: (IDOT) Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Study

In 2003, Illinois law established a four-year statewide study of data from traffic stops to identify racial bias. The legislature extended the data collection several times, and also expanded the study to include data on pedestrian stops. In 2019, Public Act 101-0024 took effect and eliminated the study's scheduled end date and extended the data collection.

Access IDOT Traffic Stop Data - Statewide

Petragallo says it’s difficult to produce a narrative through those numbers. 

“I don’t think the numbers in and of themselves tell the whole story; there’s a lot of literature on that,” Petragallo said.  “But it is something that we have to keep in mind.  As the police department and as the public, we should be looking at these things.  I think we need an awareness of that while seeing if there is anything going against bias enforcement policies.  Those are things that are not easily answered and need to be studied.”

He says accountability doesn’t mean everyone has to be perfect. “It means when you make mistakes, you work to rectify them,” Petragallo said.

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