DeKALB – After about an hour of discussion on Monday, the DeKalb City Council gave city staff the unanimous go-ahead to create a citizen’s review board for the city’s police force.
More than a year after a countrywide social justice movement was spurred by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said the proposal to create a citizen’s review board came up after DeKalb community members provided a list of demands following Floyd’s death to help with police accountability.
“We have had some very frank and constructive conversations and we have looked at internal procedures, how people are treated and how we can be more accountable and more transparent,” Nicklas said, speaking to the city council Monday.
“I identified some ways in particular that I think this council has stepped up and been at the head of the curve on a lot of internal changes and adjustments,” Nicklas continued. “But one thing that we haven’t talked about in this room but we’ve had a lot of conversation within the community about ... is whether we want to embrace a civilian police review board.”
According to city documents, the board would be comprised of five civilian members who would be appointed by the DeKalb mayor and approved by the city council. The board would hold public meetings “no less than six times per year” and be subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
All board members would have to be DeKalb residents and serve staggered, two-year terms. The thought was for the mayor and council to strive for diversity in selecting board members and “the board should look like DeKalb,” Nicklas said.
The board’s main responsibilities will include reviewing closed police investigations in all “use of force” cases and make recommendations about “the thoroughness and objectivity of the investigation, and any changes it deems necessary in police policy, training, or procedures as a result of the investigation,” according to city documents.
Nicklas said more robust citizen review boards are in larger metropolitan cities where “use of force” incidents are more frequent and the firing of service weapons is the main focus. He previously said there have been only a few recorded incidents in the city when a police officer fired a gun in the line of duty.
DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd reiterated on Monday that the department supports the creation of the board. He said he also addressed with city officials his concern about potential false accusations and slander against police.
“Because we’re scrutinizing the officers for everything they do in 1-1000th of a second,” Byrd said. “So you mean to tell me we’re not going to scrutinize a complainant who took as much time as they needed to come up with a false narrative? So, to me, something has to be in place to protect our officers when they’re doing their job correctly and someone falsely accuses them of something else.”
DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes and aldermen gave consensus for the creation of the board.
Nicklas said the hope is to bring back an ordinance for the council to approve in an upcoming meeting, either toward the end of this month or during the council’s first meeting in September.
Barnes said the city can also “adapt, change and modify” the board over time “as it suits the DeKalb community.”
“So I am in full support of this,” Barnes said. “I’m really glad that we got this before us, and I look forward to getting the citizen’s review board together and getting this in place.”
Second Ward Alderwoman Barb Larson said it’s important to find the right mix of people to serve on the board. She said it might be difficult but “not impossible” to find those board members who “reflect all of DeKalb” and the whole community has to trust their judgement.
“Whether we’re residents, people that are more victims, or maybe on the wrong side of the police, or feel that we haven’t been treated fairly by the police,” Larson said. “Those five people have to have the trust of all those different groups.”
The update comes after former DeKalb Police Sgt. Jeff Weese – who was found in violation of the DeKalb Police Department’s use of force policy after video surfaced of an August 2019 arrest during which he placed a man in what a police forensic doctor later described as a chokehold – resigned in November 2020.
Local activist Frankie DiCiaccio, a DeKalb resident who provided public comment during the meeting, said they appreciated the additional transparency a citizen’s review board for police would provide. They said one of their main concerns is how much power the board would actually have in reviewing incidents involving police and that “nationally, we have experienced momentum leading us to this moment, and my biggest fear is that we are squandering it on something that does not fundamentally shift overnight.”
“And it is really frightening that we might give the illusion of progress and everyone will sit back and then something will happen,” DiCiaccio said. “And that’s my fear.”
DiCiaccio said after the meeting they recognized the effort put in by city officials over the course of the previous year to address demands from local activists, including adding social workers to police department staff.
“It’s clear to me that the mayor and city manager and council members, they want to do the right thing … and I appreciate that,” DiCiaccio said.
DiCiaccio said they still had some unanswered questions about the potential board – including reference of the board receiving “pertinent” information or materials after an internal investigation is closed, who would deem the information pertinent, whether the board would have subpoena powers or whether the board can overrule department on what is considered pertinent. They also wanted to know whether this board gets any involvement in ongoing investigations under any circumstances and whether the board would get its own budget.
“Transparency-wise, it seems fine,” DiCiaccio said. “But as far as individual officers who commit those acts go, the board has no teeth, and that’s my concern.”
While the city council can change the board’s makeup if need be, DiCiaccio said, they fear whether “there is the appetite to do so” and that the council is “asking for a lot of trust here” from all sides, including the police chief.
“I think hearts are in the right place,” DiCiaccio said. “I just want to make sure we do a thorough job here.”
John Walker, a member of the City’s Human Relations Committee, said he supports the creation of the board. He said he thinks DiCiaccio’s points are valid and, in his opinion, speak to the importance of “a strong board and strong members” who “would not just be pushed aside and would demand to get down to the facts and get the problem solved and find the right solution.”
For example, Walker said a committee chose Byrd as the city’s police chief. He said “there were tears” and “there was yelling” and other heated discussions over the course of the police chief selection process until March 2021.
“But we all came up with that guy,” Walker said, adding the committee selected him as police chief for a reason and that Byrd is the type to serve with integrity and “not leave any stone unturned.”
Walker said he agreed with city officials’ comments about how there should be clear consequences for filing a false complaint or police report.
“Because [Byrd]’s right,” Walker said. “Anything put on a police officer’s name, career … could follow them for the rest of their lives.”