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'We have to start somewhere': DeKalb calls for police reform, urgency in action by city

DeKALB – Implementing policy change in the DeKalb Police Department was the topic of conversation during a city committee meeting Tuesday, but residents said change isn’t happening fast enough.

During a special session of the city of DeKalb’s Human Relations Commission meeting conducted via Zoom from the DeKalb Police Department on Tuesday, many called for action in the wake of local and national unrest spurred by the death of George Floyd.

“We have to start somewhere,” said Vivian Meade, 26, of DeKalb, organizer of the local Black Lives Matter chapter that will host a public townhall meeting 5 p.m. Thursday at the Hopkins Park Bandshell.

“If we do not start tonight, it will never begin,” she said.

Meade’s comments came after a three-hour forum in which the commission invited residents to share ideas for policy reform and reforming policing practices. Many on Tuesday called for a citizen-led oversight committee to oversee the police department, prohibiting the city from hiring police officers who have a history of excessive use of force complaints, redistributing public dollars to social services instead of policing and demilitarizing the police department.

The HRC, similar to other advisory committees, does not hold any policy-making power, but makes recommendations to the City Council based on its own meetings. The council then takes up those recommendations for discussion in their own meetings and then votes on policy accordingly.

When it came time to recommend action to the council, Committee member Lisa King said she wanted Tuesday’s public input in the recommendation for the council meeting set for Monday.

“My point is I think we need to be conscientious about the steps that we take,” King said. “And I think we need to be sincere about trying to see something implemented and not doing it to get it done to make sure we did something.”

HRC Chairman Larry Apperson, along with City Manager Bill Nicklas, said they wanted to wait to gather further citizen comment from Thursday’s townhall meeting and would wait to vote on minutes and action items until the next committee meeting set for July 7.

The council would then take up the policy recommendations for a vote sometime in July, Nicklas said.

“People on the call are feeling very unheard,” Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris said at one point, as debate between committee members and participants intensified, with many calling for action now.

DeKalb reform suggestions

Police reform has again been thrust into the national spotlight after Floyd, a black man, was killed while in police custody after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, was seen in a video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even after he’d passed out. Chauvin later was fired from the department and charged with murder.

Maurice McDavid, a DeKalb native who graduated from DeKalb High School in 2006 and is leaving his role as administrator with District 428 at the end of the school year, suggested the citizen oversight committee to oversee police and community relations.

He urged the city to make the committee as diverse as District 428, for example, which he said has about 18% African American students, 25% Latino students and 67% two or more races.

“I’m looking for an opportunity to see that diversity reflected in the rooms where decisions are made,” McDavid said. “Unfortunately, the old saying is ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ So if we can diversify decision making, I think it can go a long way.”

Shrestha Singh said contrary to the viral “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which urges demonstrators across the nation to urge local municipalities to adopt immediate police reform such as banning choke holds and requiring de-escalation training, sometimes that doesn’t work.

She said other departments are replacing police officers with trained unarmed professionals to respond to calls for help on noncriminal matters.

“I know that the word abolition can be a scary word, like what are we going to do if we abolish the police, but really what it means is it’s just imagining what it would look like to invest in our community proactively and create safety and security from the ground up.”

Jenny Stamatakos suggested that the DeKalb Police Department implement a zero-tolerance policy for excessive use of force.

“I think that it should be made retroactive so that any officers who have been charged with it are fired,” she said. “And I think it needs to include records from previous employment so that we don’t harbor someone who was ejected elsewhere.”

Anna Wilhemi, a Democratic candidate running for DeKalb County State’s Attorney against incumbent Rick Amato, said stop-and-frisk policies also must be reviewed.

“Stopping black or brown people for loitering or trespassing, small violations to harass people is not OK,” Wilhemi said. She also addressed police training and said calling for more training won’t work if the police are acting differently for white residents than others.

Some called for citizen input as the city of DeKalb looks to hire a permanent police chief following former interim chief John Petragallo’s retirement June 2.

City Manager Bill Nicklas said the chief search was put no hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bob Redel now serves as acting police chief, and said the past two weeks have been “a difficult time for the police department.”

“We’ve encountered things we’ve never encountered in my 26, 27 years,” Redel said after members of the forum asked for his thoughts. “We’ve been trying to work with the community as best we can. There’s been some points brought up today that I have not thought about, so I’ve got some soul-searching myself to do.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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