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Illinois House debates massive police reform omnibus

  • State Sen. Elgie Sims

    State Sen. Elgie Sims
    CNI photo

  • James Black, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police

    James Black, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police

By Raymon Troncoso
Capitol News Illinois
updated: 1/11/2021 8:57 PM

SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois House of Representatives continued to debate a massive criminal justice omnibus bill Sunday that would transform policing practices in the state.

A 611-page amendment to House Bill 163 would heavily revamp use-of-force guidelines, mandate body cameras for every law enforcement agency, end cash bail, remove some qualified immunity protections, and strip collective bargaining rights relating to discipline from police unions.

The legislation, which is the culmination of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus agenda to end systemic racism, faces opposition from law enforcement groups and Republican lawmakers.

"This has been a 400-year-plus journey that we have been on," said state Rep. Justin Slaughter Sunday. He is a Chicago Democrat who helped craft HB163.

"We want to go from protest to progress," he repeated three times with emphasis.

Slaughter chairs the House Criminal Judiciary Committee, which must accept the amendment before it can go to the House floor for a vote. The committee heard testimony and debate from law enforcement, municipal representation, legal experts and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

HB163 would amend the acceptable forms of force by officers, banning chokeholds and restraints that can restrict breathing; as well as severely limiting the situations where deadly force is authorized. The reforms were strongly opposed by the law enforcement coalition during Sunday's hearing.

Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle, representing the Illinois Sheriff's Association, called the proposed reforms "catastrophic" and said they would make policing impossible for officers who have to make split-second decisions.

Crystal Lake Police Chief James Black, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said he supports reforms to use of force but that HB163 is not the answer.

"We want to affect positive change in our communities," he said. "But we do not support the bill, the bill will destroy law enforcement's ability to keep communities safe."

When pressed by Slaughter on what changes to the use-of-force guidelines they would accept, Black and VanVickle did not have an answer, but said the five days provided in the lame duck session were not enough time for their legal experts to craft alternatives.

That sentiment was echoed by the ranking Republican on the committee, state Rep. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro.

"(The) lame duck session is not the time to hash out a 600-, maybe 1,000-page issue on something this important," she said. "Too often the legislature wants to do something even if that's the wrong thing. So let's do the right things and let's do this the right way."

Slaughter and state Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, who also crafted the legislation, have pushed back on the notion that the bill is rushed, pointing to the nine hearings held by the Black Caucus on criminal justice reform. Most topics discussed in those hearings, which neared 30 hours in collective length and included both the IACP and ISA, are in the amendment.

Body cameras
Body cameras would be mandatory for all law enforcement agencies under the law. Larger agencies would be required to have cameras in place by Jan. 1, 2022, and all agencies would need to have cameras in place by 2025.

Any municipality or county whose law enforcement agency does not comply would have its Local Government Distributive Fund contributions from the state reduced by 20 percent each year until it meets the requirements. The LGDF is the portion of state income tax revenue that goes to cities and counties.

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and the Chicago FOP, refer to the Black Caucus legislation as the "Defund the police bill" because of this provision.

Slaughter disputes that characterization, given that law enforcement agencies are given time to comply and do not have funding cut outright.

"We cannot afford not to make the changes we're calling for," Sims said Sunday, pointing to a 2020 study by economists at Citigroup that says the U.S. lost $16 trillion in GDP since 2000 due directly to racism.

The Black Caucus points to the losses in potential tax revenue due to racist practices, as well as the massive settlements cities pay out each year for police misconduct, as the cost of not passing their legislation.

The amendment as written does not provide law enforcement agencies any assistance for acquiring and implementing body cameras. VanVickle and Black testified they would support mandatory body cameras if they received fiscal support from the state and the funding penalty for noncompliance was removed.

Brad Cole, former Carbondale mayor and executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, said IML opposes any measure that would affect LGDF. However, IML supports mandatory body cameras as long as the timeline could be extended by a few years.

Meanwhile, a provision in the amendment would remove the ability of law enforcement unions to collectively bargain over issues of officer discipline and firing.

Cole said the IML supports the measure to give cities more power over discipline and termination of officers.

However, Tamara Cummings, general counsel for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, said the measure would make officers "second-class citizens," saying there are already restrictions on their collective bargaining powers that other private or public worker unions are not subject to.

Cummings said the idea that police unions prevent bad cops from being fired "a myth" and testified that only 2% of discharge cases for officers are appealed to arbitration by unions.

The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the U.S., released a statement saying it "stands strongly behind the efforts of the Legislative Black Caucus to address social justice and comprehensive criminal justice reform, as soon as possible."

But it added, "We oppose current language in one component of the legislative package that would strip critical collective bargaining rights for union members across Illinois, including for the Black and brown communities that legislators are trying to uplift."

Qualified immunity
In a provision called the "Police Integrity and Accountability Act," HB163 would make police officers personally liable for lawsuits for violating the rights of a person guaranteed under the Illinois Constitution, while explicitly removing qualified immunity as a defense. Qualified immunity grants government officials and employees immunity from civil suits in the course of their duties.

Law enforcement groups have claimed removing qualified immunity would leave police officers open to frivolous lawsuits. "They will lose their homes for simple mistakes," Cummings said.

Peter Hanna, legal adviser for the ACLU of Illinois, said opponents of the provision have incorrectly defined what qualified immunity actually does. According to Hanna, officers would still have legal protections, but now victims of police misconduct whose constitutional rights were violated would be able to obtain remedy from the individual officers responsible in civil court.

Cole and the IML opposed the provision on the grounds it would mean "absolute liability" for officers and could lead to Illinois municipalities losing their insurance that helps pay out settlements for officer misconduct.

• Requires officers to ID themselves as peace officers and warn that deadly force will be used before using said force.
• Amends acceptable forms of force; bans chokeholds and above-shoulder restraints that could limit a suspect's ability to breathe.
• Says officers may not use force as punishment or retaliation, cannot use nonlethal projectiles to target a person's head, groin or back or fire them indiscriminately into a crowd. Officers also prevented from using tear gas or pepper spray without first issuing a warning and allowing "sufficient time and space" to follow the order.
• Says officers cannot use force on a fleeing suspect unless suspect has just harmed or tried to harm another person, is in possession of a deadly weapon, is considered an active threat to human life or cannot be apprehended safely at another date.
• Requires officers to prevent another officer's illegal use of force in their presence regardless of the chain of command. They also must report the offending officer, with provisions that make it an offense to retaliate.
• Holds officers individually liable for lawsuits if they violate the rights of a person guaranteed under the Illinois Constitution.
• Removes officer discipline and discharge from collective bargaining.
• Eliminates cash bail as a requirement for pretrial release; replaces it with a set of pretrial release conditions established by the Illinois Supreme Court.
• Says when a person dies in police custody or as a result of an officer's use of force, the law enforcement agency must investigate and file a complete report in writing to the Illinois Attorney General within 30 days. The AG is required to make reports publicly available on their website.