More police in schools? DeKalb city leaders want more police all around, officials say

DeKalb City Council tackles police school resource officer proposal in latest discussion of cop hiring

DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd talks about the duties of the newly-formed DeKalb Citizens Police Review Board during the first meeting of the board Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, at the DeKalb Police Department.

DeKALB – Debating whether to provide DeKalb School District 428 with more school police resource officers next year, city leaders this week said they hope to hire more police to patrol streets in addition to schools.

Officials said the request is due to unmet need for more police in the community.

The DeKalb City Council on Monday deliberated over a proposal to provide the school district with at least two more police school resource officers, trained police who work full time in school buildings. Over the past month, the school board said increased student behavioral issues necessitate more cops in schools. Last week, the school board approved a preliminary plan to put two additional SROs in district buildings: one at DeKalb High School and another for the middle schools.

The request still requires DeKalb City Council approval, although officials said this week additional police are needed regardless.

“Just so it’s clear, we are moving forward [with hiring],” City Manager Bill Nicklas said. “We’re just not able to hire right now.”

Nicklas asked for the council’s expeditious direction and a decision within 60 days. If the school district doesn’t have its end of the contract set by then, the new officers will be absorbed into regular rank-and-file of the department.

“There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t have somebody complaining, ‘Where are the police on our streets doing traffic control?’ ” Nicklas said. “I’m not going to lie to people. ... We’re not going to stop hiring until we can do all the things people expect of us.”

In line with pandemic-era employment trends, Byrd said bringing in more boots on the ground to DeKalb has been a challenge.

“We’re at a recruiting war with every department in the state of Illinois,” Byrd said. “And we’re all fighting for the same candidates.”

In April, the DeKalb City Council tabled a proposal to change downtown parking space time limits that would have limited certain streetside parking along Lincoln Highway to one hour instead of three. City staff said the three-hour parking limits on downtown strips aren’t monitored as they should be by police because officers are “committed elsewhere,” according to city documents.

On Monday, the DeKalb City Council also voted, 8-0, to approve a budget amendment for the Fiscal 2021 budget. Among the amendments approved included an additional $696,000 to compensate for overtime costs accrued by DeKalb police and fire employees last year, documents show.

Nicklas said the additional funds were needed because of earlier in 2021, when a COVID-19 vaccine and booster weren’t readily available to all. He said significant overtime was needed to maintain minimum shift levels while first responders were quarantined.

“Lots of staff were impacted,” he said.

The COVID-19 vaccine came to DeKalb County in late December 2020 and was made eligible to first responders in early January 2021.

Hiring challenges

In DeKalb, two recent hires will begin the police academy this month, Byrd said. Two more are likely in line to start another academy in August, and two additional hires who already have academy-trained police experience could follow later in the year.

If the school district asks for two as SROs, the city department will need to take them through additional training.

It’s a lengthy process to hire a police officer, Byrd said. New hires must be vetted, given a background check, approved through the city’s police and fire commission and taken through the 14-week police academy. After academy graduation, trainees are paired up with existing patrol officers on a beat in the city and co-patrol for 26 weeks before they’re allowed to patrol solo. A school resource officer must also go through a weekslong additional training program.

“So even if they’re hired in August, we’re looking at the impact won’t really be felt until almost 26 weeks after that,” Byrd said.

“Lateral” officers, or new hires who’ve already been through the academy and have experience under their belt, have a quicker hire-ready timeline, but those candidates are increasingly harder to find, Byrd said.

The chief said this week he’s not one to skip steps, either.

“I have to be mindful of not trying to stretch a candidate to try to fit what we’re doing at the DeKalb Police Department,” Byrd said. “I think it would be an injustice for the police department and definitely injustice for the city of DeKalb. So we have passed on several candidates, especially on the lateral level. ... I just didn’t think they were a good fit for us. It was a lot of red flags, I think some of them were deal breakers for me personally.”

According to the recently released annual 2021 report published by the DeKalb Police Department, DeKalb police made 1,880 arrests last year. The department had a $13.5 million budget in 2021 and in 2022 plans to hire up to 65 sworn officers, a number that includes the police chief and command staff.

The majority of the budget goes to payroll, with the largest chunk set aside for the department’s patrol division, records show.

The department also added a third division in 2021 – part of a restructuring announced by the city mid-2020 amid the Black Lives Matter movement – meant to facilitate a more “community”-based approach to policing. The Community Support Services division was funded with $2.2M, according to city documents, and is meant to address community engagement, crime-free housing, behavioral health and wellness calls for service. DeKalb officers – the report doesn’t say how many – also attended a 40-hour crisis intervention training in 2021.

According to the department’s 2021 crime statistics, DeKalb police responded to 1,432 violent crimes, including three murders, 48 sexual assaults, 1,072 “simple” assaults and 12 kidnapping or abduction incidents.

The report also lists one “justifiable homicide.”

In October, DeKalb police officer Brian Bollow – who according to the annual report marked 20 years as a police officer in 2021 – shot and killed Kristopher M. Kramer, 33, during a domestic incident where Kramer brandished a sword at police, threatened to kill himself and didn’t comply with officer’s commands to put the weapon down. A monthslong investigation lead by the Illinois State Police made its way to the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office, who determined no criminal charges were warranted in the shooting.

SRO proposal

Since the beginning of the school year, the DeKalb High School school resource officer responded to 418 calls for police service, according to district documents. Many included fights, gun threats, drug possession or distribution and “general intimidation,” district documents show.

As part of DeKalb city ordinance, individuals who fight within city limits are issued a citation, an SRO responsibility. Since the beginning of the school year, more than 30 fights at district schools resulted in citations to those involved, according to the documents.

The school district has one SRO at DeKalb High School, one SRO split between the two middle schools, and a third SRO split between the eight elementary schools.

The DeKalb school board and city officials previously have said adding more police to schools isn’t a long-term solution to a more systemic behavioral problem.

Third Ward Alderman Tracy Smith, a retired DeKalb police officer, spoke sharply against adding more SROs to the district payroll if stipulations aren’t made in the contract for city officers. In preparation for the 2022-23 school year, district officials said they’re looking to update the student’s code of conduct to better address behavioral issues.

“I’m just concerned that this code of conduct will not be in place, and I will not vote for this without it,” Smith said. “I want assurances for the people who work out there otherwise you’re going to get a very abrupt no from me. I don’t have kids there anymore, but if my kids were in there at this point I would be knocking on the superintendent’s office every day.”

Under the SRO intergovernmental agreement contract with the city and school district, District 428 would reimburse the city of DeKalb 75% of the total amount for the officer’s salaries and benefits, which total $130,821 per SRO including district-related overtime costs, documents show. The district’s 75% funding obligation totals $98,116 per SRO, records show.

The school district also is expected to help pay for the DeKalb Police Department to buy three more police squad vehicles, a $36,000 cost, according to district documents.

Nicklas said he expects a proposal for an updated SRO contract to go before the council for a formal vote at the next council meeting this month.