Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Metro East Black leaders say a far-reaching criminal justice reform bill under consideration this week by Illinois lawmakers represents a long-overdue step toward addressing systemic injustice.
But the region’s police chiefs contend the voluminous measure is being rushed to passage in the last hours of a short lame duck session, without considering the impact its many mandates could have on law enforcement.
The original 611-page bill, backed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, would ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds, mandate body cameras, end cash bail and hold police officers personally liable in civil lawsuits removing qualified immunity protections.
The Senate passed a stripped down version of the bill shortly before 5 a.m. Wednesday after meeting mostly behind closed doors throughout the night, Capitol News Illinois reported. The House was expected to take it up Wednesday morning. The details of the revised bill were not yet clear, but it had faced heavy criticism from Republicans and police groups prior to lawmakers modifying it.
“It’s certainly a commentary that we are still here in the year of 2021 working on these issues, dealing with injustice,” said state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, a caucus member.
“And hopefully we are doing our ancestors proud in the work that we are doing here. I hope that we just continue to push forward in our work. This is for my son and his kids, so that they will have a better path forward.”
The legislation was first introduced as an amendment to House Bill 163. It was also filed as an amendment to House Bill 3653 Sunday, Capitol News Illinois reported.
The shifts in bill numbers and language has caused confusion and concern, said Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson. The new General Assembly will be sworn in at noon Wednesday.
“There are a hundred different issues in there and every one of those issues needs to be broken down and investigated and talked about and all the stakeholders brought in,” Johnson said. “But to just drop 611 pages? ... That’s just not the best way to do that.”
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police are among the groups that oppose the legislation. A major concern among local chiefs was that law enforcement leaders were not involved or seriously engaged by lawmakers who drafted the bill.
“If they truly wanted input, they wouldn’t be trying to rush this through,” said Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven.
There was no rush, said state Rep. Justin Slaughter and state Sen. Elgie Sims, Democratic Black Caucus members from Chicago. The caucus held nine hearings totaling nearly 30 hours, with the police chiefs association and the Illinois Sheriff’s Association included, Capitol News Illinois reported.
But with only hours left in the 101st General Assembly, little time remains for changes
State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, said he received a revised bill 37 pages longer than the original on Tuesday. The sheer volume makes it difficult to judge provisions on their individual merits, he said.
“That’s the thing about the bill. It’s not like there’s just one or two or three bad parts. It’s bad idea after bad idea after bad idea,” Plummer said.
A key concern for the Edwardsville police chief is a requirement to pay for storage of body camera footage, a cost that could be passed on to taxpayers. Costs for cameras and data storage could effectively “defund” police, the chiefs association argues, by leading to budget cuts and layoffs.
Swansea’s chief Johnson worried that removing qualified immunity protections could expose his officers to “frivolous lawsuits.”
Black leaders from the St. Louis area said those are necessary steps forward.
Rodney Brown, a St. Louis activist who organized a protest at St. Clair County Jail last year calling for an end to cash bail, says the bill presents a better alternative to the calls for defunding that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I feel like this a great compromise from the defund the police call that was so popular over the summer. This bill isn’t taking away money from the police. It’s actually just being more strategic with policing,” Brown said.
Ending qualified immunity protections would help hold bad cops accountable, Brown added. He said he believes police are opposed to it because they “are scared that they won’t be able to get away with murder.”
“That kind of sucks because these are policies that you think the police force would embrace. I think we saw early last week when white mobs rushed the U.S. Capitol: As many injuries as there could’ve been, and that didn’t happen. Officers showed restraint. That needs to be a national trend, but they also need to be held accountable for violating people’s rights,” Brown said.
Police groups are also concerned about the effects of ending cash bail. While it could reduce the number of unnecessarily jailed people who can’t afford bond, it could also jeopardize an officer’s authority if they were forced to release a suspect, Johnson said.
Marie Franklin, an organizer with United Congregations of Metro East, argued ending cash bail would have one main effect: A fairer and more equitable system.
“I feel like we have a good relationship with our law enforcement people here in St. Clair County. I’m hoping that, because of that, it will allow poor people and particularly people in our poor communities like East St. Louis to just have a fair shot when something happens and they end up in the system,” Franklin said. “Some of our people are in jail because they didn’t go to court based on a traffic ticket, and so they get their whole lives turned upside down because of a traffic ticket because that’s not fair.”
A separate amendment to House Bill 841, backed by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, is more likely receive support from both Black Caucus members and police groups.
The bill would create a review panel to present findings to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which certifies police officers. Any officer found to have acted illegally or inappropriately could face decertification.
Currently, police officers can have their licenses automatically revoked if they are convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, such as criminal sexual abuse or theft. The proposed legislation would lower the bar for decertification and include offenses such as excessive force, perjury or tampering with evidence.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday he favors the certification bill and Raoul’s work, and supports ending cash bail. But he said he would wait to comment on the bill until a final version hits his desk.
Greenwood said police reform work doesn’t end with the omnibus bill.
“When you’re trying to rid a system (of systemic injustices), it’s not just one bill, so we’ll continue to work on this as a caucus, as a Legislative Black Caucus, but also as a Democratic caucus,” Greenwood said. “So, this work will extend beyond this lame duck session, but we are just initiating the process.”
Kelsey Landis and DeAsia Page are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.