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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.

Need Body Cameras? Sell City Hall

Peter Medlin
DeKalb Municipal Building

The City of DeKalb is selling the old City Hall building and using some of those funds to buy body cams for police in an effort to increase police transparency.

Between the dash cam footage ofElonte McDowell’s controversial arrest late last year and the recent protests that followed the death of George Floyd, DeKalb community members have been calling for leaders to reimagine not just the culture of local policing but how police are funded.

Bill Nicklas is DeKalb’s City Manager. He had an idea to sell the former city hall building and use the proceeds to outfit all police officers with body cameras. That’s because, Nicklas said, city operations were able to move to a smaller location this summer.

“We didn't need 24,000 square feet,” said Nicklas. “We only needed the space that we have here, which is about nine to 10. Our city government has gotten smaller. And since I've been here even smaller still.”

Nicklas said the City put out a request for proposals and received three applications from local developers under serious consideration: Mason Properties, Irving Construction, and Pappas Development.  

The first proposal to the City Council came from Jim Mason, and he promised to buy the building for $400,000 dollars and release it back to the city after his death.

“Mr. Mason proposes to retain the building in its current shape,” Nicklas said, “and make some improvements to it with TIF assistance, and then also build some single family rentals.”

Irving Construction came in with the lowest offer, at $9,000 dollars for the municipal building. Its plan is to develop single family townhouses. Besides that, Nicklas said, the Irving proposal wouldn’t generate much in the way of incremental property taxes. 

The final proposal came from Pappas Development. “His idea is to focus on residential,” Nicklas said. “Some two story buildings, again facing fifth and facing Fourth Street.” Nicklas continued, “These would be rentals. And they would be aiming at a market of persons who have the ability to pay a little more rent.” 

Pappas Development promised the largest sum for the old municipal building, $600,000 dollars. Nicklas says he recommended the Pappas proposal to the City Council for two reasons: “One, certainly for the taxpayers,” he said. “This is a tremendous offer, both in the acquisition price and also in what they can generate over time for the TIF district.”

Second, Nicklas said, Pappas has a good track record in DeKalb. He has had three successful developments in town that are more or less the same as the project he’s proposing for the site of the old municipal building. So Nicklas is confident Pappas can do it again. 

Moreover, the old municipal building is in a Tax Increment Financing district or a TIF, which could mean a lot for the City’s tax base, especially if the building is sold for $600,000. “Any increase in the value is pure increment,” he said, “and it's the increment that the additional property tax that will be shared with the other taxing bodies that makes all the difference in the world. It's the once in a lifetime.”

Vivian Meade is one of the organizers with the DeKalb Chapter of Black Lives Matter. She’s not sold on the city's plan to buy body cams by selling city assets. “It really defeats the purpose of all of the protests, all of the work,” she said. “Just hours of countless fighting and policy change and a lot of things that people all over the community have been making this summer and it's just kind of a slap in the face.”

The way she sees it, the Police Department already has a budget. So why give them more money?

“If you can have so much money for police pensions,” she said, “but you can't have money for body cameras, you have to use the money from selling and municipal building to most likely get the money for that, for body cameras.” Meade continued, “I don't think it's cool.”

She's not alone. In Rockford, where protests have been taking place on a regular basis since the death of George Floyd, activists planned a sit-in during a city commissioners meeting reviewing the police’s use-of-force policies. Activists there identified themselves as Jane Doe, and seemed to be on the same page as Meade. 

“Yes, we support body cams,” Doe said. “It's not an end all solution but we, we appreciate the commissioners recommending that only if it does not mean more money to the police.”

One activist said body cameras can’t fix systemic issues with police accountability. They worried those recordings will be forgotten anyway. “Those officers 15 years later, 20 years later, will retire with full pension with all their benefits,” they continued, “having faced nothing but a slap on the wrist.”

Nicklas is still optimistic that body cameras can help reduce police brutality. “There's always some debate over those things,” he said. “But on the whole, there's a pretty broad consensus that helps everybody that both the public that is being served by the police and the police officers too.”

In DeKalb, it will cost around $150,000 a year to implement that system. Not just buying and outfitting officers with the cameras, but also hiring someone to manage and archive the recordings. The expense isn’t small, and at least a fraction of that will occur every year. 

Nicklas also said selling city hall might be the best way to finance the project given the way the COVID crisis has rocked local government budgets. So the plan to sell the former city hall is still on the table. “I was hoping for around 400,000,” he said. “We have a bid right now for 600,000. But even at 400,000, because of the COVID impacts on our city revenues right now, I didn't have the money to do one of the things that Black Lives Movement and others thought was important.” Nicklas continued, “That is greater accountability on the part of police officers on the job. And body cameras are one of those.”

The plan is for the municipal building to be sold by the end of the year. So, it’s unclear if DeKalb will have Body Cams before 2021. But, Nicklas said, he might be able to secure a payment plan to get them sooner.

  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.
Credit Spencer Tritt

In 2020, we are covering elections a little differently, and it puts you in the driver's seat. Transparency in policing is one theme emerging from a series of surveys conducted by WNIJ in collaboration with the Rockford Register and Illinois Newspapers of the USA Today Network with help from a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. We will continue to report on stories related to issues important to voters as they consider how candidates for political office and current office holders shape policy matters which impact their daily lives.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.
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