While Gov. JB Pritzker this week signed a 600-page police reform bill that he said he hopes is “a step toward dismantling systemic racism,” area law enforcement officials maintain the bill leaves much to be desired.
DeKalb acting Police Chief Bob Redel said he was hoping the governor would send the bill back to the legislature for “changes” before signing it into law, which Pritzker did during a news conference Monday.
“I was hoping to governor was going to veto the House ill or send it back for changes,” Redel said. “The passed House bill will make it harder to hold those accountable for their criminal actions and it will not make our communities safer. Much work is needed to fix a lot of the ambiguous wording. We are working to get our officers trained in the changes so they can confidently do their job.”
Pritzker signed the legislation, House Bill 3653, referred to as the “Safe-T Act,” during an event at Chicago State University alongside members of his administration and lawmakers from the Black caucus. The bill was an initiative of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, and abolishes cash bail, overhauls police certification and reforms use-of-force standards among numerous other provisions. The original version of the bill abolished cash bail effective immediately, but that timeline was extended by two years to accommodate the transition and allow for uniform standards to be developed.
“This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state and our nation, and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness and true justice,” Pritzker said.
While the legislation enjoyed grassroots support from activists, buoyed by the growing national concern over policing following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, the bill faced strong opposition from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups.
Local police chiefs acknowledge support for change, but question road to reform
Sycamore Police Chief Jim Winters also said certain language “needs to be clarified,” and addressed the bill’s polarization in weeks of late.
“I think most people in law enforcement including myself know there’s room for reform, but that the language of the bill has to be clean up so there’s no ambiguity in the law,” Winters said. “I think there’s a portrayal that we’re trying to fear monger, and we weren’t really given a voice in this thing. Neither one is true. We welcome reform, but I really want a collaborative approach to it.”
When asked what specific language in the bill he thought needed clarify, Winters said he believes further language is needed on policies such as officers viewing video tapes, body worn camera protocol and custodial arrests, or use of force policy language for officers have a better idea of what’s expected of them.
“Hopefully there will be a trailing bill to clean up some of this language,”
DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said he listened to the entire news conference from Pritzker when he signed the omnibus police reform bill on Monday. He said he thinks there are some good things about the bill and he was relieved to see the qualified immunity piece was removed for the time being. However, the things he pointed to as a positive aspect of the bill are, Scott said, already being done or are already embraced by law enforcement.
Scott said police are in favor of body-worn cameras and increased training for the most part. Body-worn camera initiatives, including timelines for when patrol officers will be equipped have already been rolled out by the biggest police agencies in the county, including the sheriff’s office, DeKalb and Sycamore police, and Northern Illinois University police. However, Scott said, it’s important the state government finds a way to help local government implement those policies fiscally speaking.
“With that comes cost that, I’m afraid, will come back down on the local government,” Scott said.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said he agrees with the chokehold bans, adding body cameras and enacting duties to intervene parts of the law.
“These are already initiatives that we were undertaking locally as it was,” Amato said.
Scott said a lot of his concerns remain about how the bill will limit police officers’ ability to help citizens. For example, he said, the cashless bond part of the bill would allow a judge to compel a victim to go in front of the judge themselves, which could be unnecessarily intimidating for victims and witnesses.
“And it’s not even the trial at that point,” Scott said.
Scott said another concern of his is police not being able to charge people with escaping if they’re under electronic home monitoring but are offline for less than 48 hours.
“It just further weakens that system,” Scott said.
Scott said another problem that might arise is police not being able to arrest or remove anyone trespassing on property or engaging in disorderly conduct.
“We have to simply give them a citation or ticket for a future court date,” Scott said.
Amato echoed concerns of the ramifications of these additional requirements being put on law enforcement, especially as it relates to the greater emphasis being placed on the victim for cashless bail and to keep offenders detained. He said he also shares the concern of not being able to charge defendants with escape if they take off their home monitoring system for two days, along with not being able to issue arrest warrants as easily for defendants failing to appear in court.
“And that could put our victims in further danger,” Amato said.
Scott said he’s hopeful state officials will work with law enforcement coalitions to clean up the law to address those unintended consequences concerns.
Scott said he understands the goals lawmakers wanted to achieve with the bill, but he believes the unintended consequences of the bill leave law enforcement in a lurch. When all is said and done, he said, he believes it’s not a good law overall.
“Through it all, we will maintain and we will keep going and do the best job that we can to protect the community,” Scott said.
At any rate, Amato said, his office will always uphold law of the state regardless. He said he has spent every night over the last several weeks reading up on the more than 600 page law to get a better understanding of its intricacies.
“We just want to make sure we have safe community.”