Local Editorials

Our view: Don't fault police for enforcing the law

DeKalb interim Chief John Petragallo speaks to concerned citizens during a community discussion at New Hope Church about the recent incident involving the DeKalb Police Department and Elonte McDowell of Aurora on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 in DeKalb.
DeKalb interim Chief John Petragallo speaks to concerned citizens during a community discussion at New Hope Church about the recent incident involving the DeKalb Police Department and Elonte McDowell of Aurora on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 in DeKalb.

Maybe if police officers had just told Elonte McDowell why they had stopped him and why they wouldn’t let him leave, things would have been different.

McDowell was stopped by the DeKalb police about noon Aug. 24, after they spotted his car on Annie Glidden Road near the Northern Illinois University campus. McDowell, who is black, was not a victim of racial profiling – police had specific and verified information that he had marijuana on him, in part because of a post he made on the Snapchat social media app. A short video of four white police officers wrestling with McDowell on the pavement, as he yells, “I can’t breathe!” as an officer wrapped his arms around McDowell’s neck hit the media in the days after his arrest. The struggle continued until an officer with a dog on a leash zapped McDowell with a stun gun.

It’s the kind of video that reinforces negative perceptions about the police among the public, particularly in minority communities.

At a meeting Wednesday in DeKalb, many members of a crowd of more than 100 people told DeKalb interim Police Chief John Petragallo and DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott that they fear the police.

It’s a shame that law-abiding people should feel afraid of the police. Some of that fear is based on experience, such as being pulled over for a minor equipment violation and meeting an officer who eyes you with suspicion and wants to search your vehicle or your pockets, or being detained by the police because you fit the description of a person suspected of a crime. It can be doubly frustrating when you think those things happen to you because of something you can’t control – the color of your skin.

We respect the local police and the job they do to keep us safe. We’d like to think that doesn’t regularly happen here. But videos depicting scenes such as the struggle with McDowell can add to the sense of fear.

In the spirit of transparency, police released a longer series of dashcam videos showing the events that led up to that disturbing scene – which showed that McDowell’s behavior contributed, as well.

“Why am I being detained?” McDowell repeatedly asks on the police video. Officers never gave him a good answer, and he grew more and more frustrated – as many people would if they were stopped from going about their business without reason.

As McDowell’s frustration boiled over, officers tried to cuff him, he resisted, and the struggle ensued. Many people will see only the short cellphone video of the struggle and draw conclusions not necessarily supported by the facts. Although the stop could have been handled better, citizens have a responsibility to obey lawful commands from the police. Resisting them leads to trouble. Although marijuana will be legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, selling it without a license will not be – and we should never expect police to ignore criminal activity when they are aware of it. 

We’re certain that the videos of the incident will be scrutinized by the Illinois State Police, the agency investigating whether a police sergeant illegally used a chokehold to subdue McDowell. The sergeant has been placed on desk duty while the investigation is ongoing.

McDowell, meanwhile, is charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and resisting police, among other charges. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

The offiers involved in the stop and McDowell are entitled to due process. In the meantime, hopefully some of the thoughts and questions shared with Petragallo and Scott on Wednesday from community members will result in positive changes that will improve relations between the police and the community they serve.

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