The recent arrest of Elonte McDowell by DeKalb-area law enforcement has sparked a conversation about racism and fear of police within communities of color.
“I thought it was a little excessive and something that we had been seeing on a national stage [that] hit us locally here in our community. So it was very concerning, very disheartening," said Mitchell.
He said he wasn’t surprised to see the arrest become physical. Mitchell pastors New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. He called for a community meeting at his church to facilitate a conversation between the community and law enforcement leaders.
“I think over the years I've built a relationship with both departments [the DeKalb Police Department and the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department], as someone that is, that is honest, transparent, that has no agenda, that really wants what's best for the people. And so I was not surprised when I reached out to them that they both responded quickly, and said, ‘Yes, let's let's do this.’"
Every pew and parking spot was filled Wednesday night by community members looking for answers to questions that have been echoed nationally.
The City Police Chief and County Sheriff stood side by side at a podium toting folders full of paper as they responded to audience comments and questions about procedures and policies.
McDowell, his girlfriend, Alyssa Retuerto, who filmed his arrest, and involved officers were not present.
“I take full responsibility for this incident,” said DeKalb Police Chief John Petragallo at the meeting.
He said the DeKalb Police Department got a tip about McDowell, detailed in an August 27th press release, that set off an investigation referred to as a Terry Stop. Terry stops happen when police stop and detain someone based on reasonable probability they might commit a crime.
Petragallo said he called on the Illinois State Police to investigate the way this stop played out because of a lack of effective communication between parties.
“I believe in accountability and I believe holding myself accountable,” he told the crowd of over 200 people. “So I'd like to reserve judgment until all the facts and the whole story is in, and wait for this State Police investigation to be concluded.”
“I will do the right thing here. And I know there's a lot of eyes watching,” said Petragallo.
The Sheriff signed off on the Illinois State Investigation as well.
Petragallo said it could take at least three weeks before State Police come to a conclusion. The city police officer that held McDowell by the neck during his arrest has been assigned to administrative duties.
“And I will say that an incident like this, like I said earlier, is the exception. It's not the rule,” said Petragallo.
Questions about McDowell’s arrest and relevant policies highlighted fear of DeKalb-area police from local communities of color. Law enforcement stayed with the crowd for almost an hour after the event was scheduled to end to listen to those at the microphones.
Reverend Joe Gastiger thanked Petragallo and Scott for attending. Gastiger sits on the City of DeKalb’s Human Relations Commission, a policy recommendation group.
“[T]he Human Relations Commission for the City of DeKalb has recommended sensitivity training, cultural sensitivity training, working with people from different backgrounds, and different races,” said Gastiger to the crowd when some recommended the police department receive renewed cultural training. “We've collaborated with NIU to come up with a training program. We've been recommending that to the city for several years. The Police Department has embraced that. The Police Department said, ‘Great, that's terrific. Let's do it.’ And I think they've been genuine, sincere.”
“What's happened, though, is that it's been seriously cut out of the budget, just about every year, because there's no money,” said Gastiger.
Questions were wide ranging. Some asked whether actions taken by police officers were necessary or within policy, some questioned the number of officers of color at the DeKalb Police and DeKalb County Sheriff's departments, and others questioned what steps will be taken in the future as investigations are pending.
Treveda Redmond is a principal in Rockford. She said she’s been in DeKalb since 1992 and sees race relations with law enforcement getting worse. She said she doesn’t let her son drive after dark in DeKalb to avoid trouble with the police.
“I was hesitant about coming, because I'm tired of talking,” she said. “You know, I'm an action-oriented person. And so far, nothing is happening. We just talked about it. And we are here again. So I'll be interested in seeing what happens next.”
Officers from the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department were called when McDowell was arrested, including a K9 unit that was used to search McDowell’s car for narcotics.
Roger Scott has been the Sheriff in DeKalb County for 34 years. He said group conversations about race relations in the area are new to him.
“I've had these conversations privately with a few people over the years, not very often,” he said. “So this is really kind of a first, even though I've been Sheriff for a while.”
He said the officer that used a taser on McDowell was part of his department. He said that officer responded with permissible use of force.
“The feelings that they [the audience] have regarding racism or prejudice, I understand where it's coming from. But I believe is not intentional in any way. And that these folks [law enforcement] are out there working every night and day. And when they get the call, they go,” he said.
Devlin Collins is a student at Northern Illinois University. He’s part of NIU’s Black Male Initiative. He says he’s sees illustrations of mistrust between his friends and police officers.
“Tonight was a good, I guess, first answer for what happened that day,” he said.
Collins said came because he wanted to learn as much as possible about local law enforcement so he can better mentor incoming freshman. He stood and watched from a corner during the two-hour event while writing in a blue notebook.
“I was taking notes for it because of the fact that I don't, I never believed that we would get all the details here. So little by little, I'll see what meetings I can attend and try to piece together what I have in myself before I come to a final conclusion,” said Collins.
Cell phone footage of law enforcement interaction with people of color, especially black men, are becoming more frequent as video cameras become accessible, said Pastor Mitchell.
They can stir allegations of racial profiling, police brutality or excessive use of force in cities across the country. Community meetings have happened in response to some of these filmed incidents, but not every one.
For example, in June, a video of the arrest of William Ewell by the Hawthorne Police Department went viral. Hawthorne, California is a town of around 87,000 people. It’s the place where the widespread community engagement effort “Coffee With A Cop” was first launched. Gary Tomatani is Hawthorne’s Public Information Officer.
“We want members of our own community to know that, because we are... the police are people, Hawthorne Police is no different than any other law enforcement organization that exists, we're capable of making mistakes. We will make mistakes, but we don't want the public that we serve -- the community that we serve -- to feel like the mistakes are all that we do,” said Tomatoni about the formation of "Coffee With A Cop."
Hawthorne didn’t host a community meeting about the viral incident, said Tomatani, because they have other avenues for communication in place. He said the officers involved in arresting Ewell did nothing wrong.
"There's hundreds of people that made comments that were pro-police, and there were hundreds of people made comments that were anti-police,” he said about comments on the viral video of the arrest. “Nobody, I think, ever changed their mind in any of those discussion threads,” he said. He said he didn’t think people would change their minds at a community meeting either.
DeKalb County Sheriff Scott said DeKalb is an outlier in the national pattern of controversial interactions between law enforcement and people of color.
“I don't think DeKalb has a place in that narrative,” said Scott. “But I think we need to make sure that we pay attention to that narrative, and ensure that it doesn't become that. Now, that's my thoughts. Obviously, the people here think DeKalb is part of that narrative, I think we can correct that, we can fix it,” he said.
Petragallo said he believes in the use of cameras because they tell a story. He said the meeting was productive and “very important” to him.
He said a reccuring theme was the prevalence of fear of law enforcement: “And I think that it was good for me to hear that. And it obviously needs to be addressed.”
He said his department engages with the community where they can. “I think we do so many things, our people are, they are really, really outstanding with what they do, but they're human,” he said.
Attendees included community leaders like City Manager Bill Nicklas, NIU President Lisa Freeman, and City Mayor Jerry Smith.
“I know that we heard a lot of folks who were somewhat negative in their assessment of what happened during the incident and, and what is happening as it relates to training. But it [the meeting] was positive in the sense that, you know, this is a community that cares,” said Mayor Smith.
Mayor Smith said he watched videos of McDowell’s arrest. He said DeKalb doesn’t usually see the amount of force used that was used in McDowell’s arrest.
“I was disturbed only because that kind of stuff does not happen [in DeKalb],” he said.
He said he didn’t see a problem with the video and that he’d hate to think “that it was a racial scenario.”
“I can't comment on the video,” said Smith. “I think there's a question now on some of the physical activity. And I think that's what the Illinois State Police is going to look at. I was disappointed, I guess, in the sense that some people seeing it made a knee jerk response, and perhaps drew the conclusion that this is the way we do business in the City of DeKalb with our Police Department,” he said.
Pastor Mitchell closed the event by saying that if the State Police investigation into the arrest is not done “right” or “expediently” that civil disobedience is on the agenda.
Petragallo and Scott said they’ll be reviewing action such as future sensitivity training, changing policies related to the use of tasers, sharing public information about the race of people arrested, and meeting with university student communities.