Illinois House continues to debate police reform omnibus

Law enforcement, municipalities, legal experts weigh in

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. Further language could be added in a future amendment as well.

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,” Rep. Justin Slaughter, a Chicago Democrat who helped craft HB163, said in a news conference held Sunday morning by the Black Caucus.

“We want to go from protest to progress,” he repeated three times with increasing 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 on the bill from law enforcement, municipal representation, legal experts and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.

Use of force

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 the hearing.

Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle, representing the Illinois Sheriff’s Association, called the proposed reforms “catastrophic” to law enforcement and said they would make policing impossible for officers that have to make split-second decisions.

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

“We do not want to be obstructionist; we want to affect positive change in our communities. But we do not support the bill, the bill will destroy law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe,” he said.

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 replied the five days provided in the lame duck session were not enough time for their legal experts to craft alternative measures.

The sentiment was echoed by the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Terri Bryant.

“No one is asking this to be slow rolled. Lame duck session is not the time to hash out a 600, now maybe 800, maybe 1,000-page issue on something that is 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 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 at times, are in the amendment.

“Our state makes international news regarding police brutality and misconduct,” Slaughter said during the hearing, invoking the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police.

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.

Law enforcement groups, including the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and the Chicago FOP, have referred to the Black Caucus legislation as the “Defund the police bill” because of this provision, a notion repeated by Chief Black, of Crystal Lake.

Slaughter and other members of the Black Caucus have disputed the 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 during the Black Caucus’ Sunday news conference, pointing to a 2020 study by economists at Citigroup that says the U.S. lost $16 trillion in GDP since 2000 due to racism.

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

The amendment as written does not provide law enforcement agencies any monetary assistance for acquiring and implementing body cameras. VanVickle and Black both testified their law enforcement agencies would have no issues with body cameras being mandatory if they received fiscal support from the state and the funding penalty for noncompliance was removed.

Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, which represents towns, villages and cities across the state, said IML opposes any measure that would negatively impact LGDF. However, it supports mandatory body cameras as long as the timeline for departments was extended by a few years.

Collective bargaining

A provision in the amendment would remove the ability of law enforcement unions to collectively bargain with their employers on any issue besides wages and benefits.

Tamara Cummings, general counsel for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, said the measure would make law enforcement “second-class citizens,” noting they already have some restrictions on their collective bargaining powers that no other private or public worker union is subject to.

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

Cole told the committee that the IML supports the measure, and that giving municipalities more power over discipline and termination of officers was a positive reform.

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. Cummings said it would “eliminate the ability to protect the majority of law enforcement officers who are trying to do a good job.”

“They will lose their homes for simple mistakes,” she said.

Peter Hanna, legal adviser for the ACLU of Illinois, testified in favor of eliminating qualified immunity, saying 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.

Other developments

Another bill backed by AG Raoul, which overhauls state certification of law enforcement, is also a part of the Black Caucus agenda and was discussed during the Judiciary Committee hearing.

Both that bill and HB163 contain language on police certification, the duty of officers to intervene, and the process for anonymous complaints against law enforcement.

Lawmakers crafting the omnibus bill say they will either remove competing language from their legislation or reconcile it to match what is in the AG’s bill. The latter has support from law enforcement groups, which collaborated with Raoul, Gov. JB Prtizker’s office and other stakeholders in its development.

The House Judiciary Committee will meet again Monday to further discuss the collective bargaining dispute in HB163 and a provision that grants additional rights to detainees in police custody.

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