Eye On Illinois: Task force taking a deep dive on qualified immunity debate

Due diligence doesn’t always grab headlines, but it’s an essential part of the legislative process.

In early January, the General Assembly adopted an omnibus criminal justice bill dubbed the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act. One component created the Task Force on Constitutional Rights and Remedies to study legal protections granted specifically to law enforcement personnel, balanced against civilians’ rights, then submit policy recommendations by May 1.

The group had its first meeting Thursday, an online session with several police and legal experts. A second is set for Oct. 21, with at least a third required under the law creating the body. While public safety and police reform have been a ripe topic for those already on the campaign trail, these sessions underscore the reality that reform is an ongoing process and most candidate talking points are woefully short on substance.

Interested in a deep dive? Visit the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority website, icjia.state.il.us, and start scrolling. In addition to a fantastic SAFE-T Act summary, there’s also the option to download the files collected for task force members to review before their first session. The package includes 15 documents, ranging form “Qualified Immunity: Myth vs. Fact” from the National Sheriffs Association to federal judicial opinions and appellate court decisions to reports from similar commissions in other states to legal journal articles that last hundreds of pages with extensive sourcing.

Some of those articles have bylines of people who spoke at Thursday’s meeting, including UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz. Among her suggestions, according to Capitol News Illinois, was codifying qualified immunity as an affirmative defense for police officers sued in civil litigation, rather than an outright elimination.

Doing so, Schwartz said, would mean “the defendant really has to come forward and show the policy, the training or the law that they relied upon, that they were trained about, that they received, that made them think that what they were doing was constitutional.”

The docket presumably will grow before the task force’s next meeting, as members asked state staff to get ready by reviewing the number of police misconduct cases filed recently in Illinois as well as those that ended with a dismissal based on qualified immunity.

In addition to the sheriff’s group, the general counsel for the National Fraternal Order of Police weighed in Thursday. The task force has representatives several statewide police agencies. It’s too early to predict what members ultimately will recommend, but all signs thus far point to a sincere commitment to thoroughly understanding the issue.

Nothing is binding. This is about study, debate and ideas. The process itself isn’t as controversial as many want voters to believe — all the more reason to give it sincere attention.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.