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Police question radical reforms in Illinois

The legislature supports drastic changes to suspect’s interactions with courts and officers

Protesters confront police officers during protests in Chicago in May 2020. Associated Press/Photo by Nam Y. Huh (file)

Police question radical reforms in Illinois

A criminal justice bill that awaits the Illinois governor’s signature would make it a Class 3 felony for police to forget to turn on their body cameras. That measure and several others have law enforcement officers worried about making simple errors while protecting the public.

“All these things boiled together are going to make police not want to do their job,” said Dave Dorn, the Barrington, Ill., police chief. “I don’t think this bill is going to do what it’s intending to do.”

Outgoing state legislators passed the proposal in the wee hours of the morning at the end of a lame-duck legislative session on Jan. 13. Supporters of the measure said it addressed calls from citizens and activists for more law enforcement accountability after the use of force by police led to a string of high-profile deaths of African Americans such as George Floyd last summer.

Several states and cities have passed criminal justice or police reform bills in response to the protests that followed Floyd’s death. None of the laws have gone so far as defunding the police, as activists demanded, but some states made major changes to their systems. If it becomes law, Illinois’ legislation will enact some of the most radical reforms yet. Republicans protest that they were shut out of the process, and police warn the changes could make the state more dangerous.

If the governor signs the legislation, most Illinois defendants will not be jailed before their trials. Judges can decide to hold those who might run away or reoffend, but the bill requires “a presumption in favor of pretrial release.”

The reforms also include increasing reporting requirements in several areas of the justice system and allowing anonymous complaints against officers. The law would mandate mental health screening for police and ongoing police training in areas such as use of force and officer wellness. It would prevent police departments from requesting military equipment and specify when and how an officer may use force.

Chief Dorn praised some of the bill’s provisions such as the improved process of decertifying an officer and the standardized use of force policy. But he said the bill came together too quickly and without an understanding of how the changes would affect an officer’s ability to do the job. If someone called the police because a person was on their porch screaming and causing trouble, he said, the police could only cite the trespasser, not arrest him.

“You could have a crime being committed right in front of you, and this is prohibiting you from taking custody of them for certain offenses,” said Dorn. “Those escalate quickly if you don’t intervene.”

In addition to the heavy penalty for forgetting to turn on a body camera, the bill also does not allow officers to review their own body camera footage before writing a report. Dorn said the physical nature of trauma and stress means officers often cannot recall details from high-tension encounters.

“Our people are concerned,” he said. “They don’t want to make the wrong move. … There are a lot of areas where [the bill is] not specific in what they want the police to do.” Another example: Illinois makes recording audio without the other person’s consent a felony, but the new law requires police to turn on body camera audio.

When the bill passed on Jan. 13, several law enforcement groups released a statement expressing their disapproval: “In the dark of night Illinois legislators made Illinois less safe.”

Senate Republicans received the latest edition of the bill—764 pages long—at 3:04 a.m. Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, a Republican, complained no one had time to read it before voting on it. It passed at 5 a.m. and headed directly to the House, which approved it without a single Republican vote. House Minority Leader Jim Durkin asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, to veto the bill and let lawmakers try again, calling the legislation “a step backwards.”

Pritzker campaigned on several of the reforms in the bill, but he has not yet said whether he will sign it.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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