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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

DeKalb's Interim Police Chief Reflects On 27 Years Of Service


DeKalb Interim Chief of Police John Petragallo is ready to take off his badge.

“Mayor, Council, City Manager Nicklas, I would like to thank you for the opportunity of being your interim police chief for last year,” Petragallo said.

He gave his thank you speech at DeKalb’s city council meeting May 26.

Petragallo spent his first year in law enforcement with the Freeport Police Department. He then transferred to DeKalb. He’s held several positions, from working in narcotics to being a patrol officer.  

Policing is a serious profession, but he reminisced about the good parts.

“So, there's a lot of fun times on patrol, there was a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “And, I could think of a couple of cases that you know, everybody had some laughs.”  

Petragallo said nowadays, he gets his enjoyment by seeing his officers succeed.

“With opioid overdoses and officers are generally on scene prior to medics, they're administering Narcan. And, we're saving a lot of folks that probably would have a different result,” he said.

Petragallo said the police department needs to do a better job of sharing good news police stories. Like most recently when an officer acted quickly at the scene of a shooting.

“So, the officers got everybody out of the car and put a tourniquet on the guy that had the arterial bleed and saved his life,” he explained.

He said the department shares press releases but they are not always the positive ones.  

“Mostly about arrests. Like, if there's a robbery or something. Those are serious crimes. It's got a lot of public interest to it,” he said.

Petragallo said he’s enjoyed building relationships with the police staff and the community over the years.

“I shop, eat and everything here in DeKalb. And I bump into people all the time. And so that puts a smile on my face and I really enjoy that,” he shared.

He said having good relationships with his stakeholders were key in his position. He said the best advice he could give his successor is to build strong ones of their own. This includes with the community, regional police departments and the DeKalb police staff.

Petragallo shared how he met with someone from the Northern Illinois University Student Association Senate. He said after the meeting they exchanged cellphone numbers and a picture of Petragallo’s family came up on his home screen.

“And the one fellow asked, who are they? I'm like, well, that's my wife, Michelle. And these are my kids,” he said. Petragallo said he didn’t realize how that interaction would connect them.

“He, couldn't believe that a cop would share that personal information about themselves. It was like a light switch went off,” he said.

Petragallo explained how this connection later allowed him to get in front of a miscommunication between someone at NIU and the police department. He said he wouldn’t have known there was a problem if he hadn’t exchanged numbers that day.

“You don't have to be best friends with someone, but you, you have to have trust. And if you don't have that, you know, challenges can be impossible to overcome,” he said.

Petragallo admitted to some challenging days during his tenure. No matter what, the police have a job to do.

“Our mission is to reduce crime. That is our primary goal and to make the quality of life better in DeKalb,” he said.

Credit Yvonne Boose
DeKalb Police Headquarter's sign.

But he said carrying out this mission requires the right amount of staff. And his department has felt the financial impact of COVID-19.

“We're slated for 65 officers being down seven. All would be in the patrol division. It's a big hit,” he explained.

Petragallo said the pandemic has brought other challenges as well. He said because police are essential workers, they were all required to come to work. He had to think about what could happen if leadership became sick.

“I thought myself, you know, ‘If command staff goes down, who's going to run this place?’ So, one of our commanders went home and he worked from home,” he said.

He said he’s made sure the officers are protected, both for their sakes and others.

“But the greatest fear with us within the P.D. [police department] is ‘Are we going to bring this home?’ and so we did our best. And I'm pretty proud of how we handled it.”

Petragallo said outside of the pandemic he’s had some other moments during his career that weren’t so pretty.

“Sometimes we make mistakes, we're human, and you got to own that. You have to own it. And if you don't, that breeds mistrust,” he said.

Petragallo said he is a realist. He understands that everyone isn’t going to be pleased.

“And what I've always tried to do is do the best I can to explain our, you know, our policies, how we do things, and sometimes it's just a matter of that explanation that can go a long way,” he shared.

Petragallo took the good with the bad but he also took pride in the work that he did.

He spoke of a time when a female victim said she was robbed at gunpoint. He said the offender denied it.

“I believed him. I had this weird feeling that, you know, something was going on,” he said.

He explained why.

“Detectives get training and you learn cues of honesty and deception,” he said. “And I wasn't getting the cues that we're trained on of deceptive responses.”

Petragallo said the woman later confessed that she made the story up.

He said he’s proud that he followed his instincts because an innocent man could have lost his freedom.

Petragallo is not done with working in public service but he is looking forward to some downtime.

"I'm very excited that I could take a month or so off and just, you know, decompress. And I don't think I've had more than a week and a half off in like 27 years,” he said.

He said he doesn’t plan to leave DeKalb unless a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself.

Petragallo’s last day with the force is June 2. DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas has announced Commander Bob Redel will be the new interim police chief.    

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for Americaan initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.