Officials in Will County express ‘concern’ over criminal justice reform bill

Proponents argue it’s a necessary step forward to heal divide on matters of justice

The sweeping police reform bill that made it through the General Assembly this month has caused a range of concerns across the state, including among some in Will County.

The bill, an amendment to H.B. 3653, includes an end to cash bail, required body cameras for all officers, an aim to establish use-of-force standards statewide, and grants more state power over who can be a member of law enforcement, among other provisions.

As of Wednesday, the bill awaited Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature to become law.

Some of these provisions have caused consternation among local officials, police departments, police unions and others across Illinois.

The village of Bolingbrook released a statement opposing the bill, arguing it “will negatively affect every community in Illinois.”

“The changes in the law and reforms that are proposed by House Bill 163 as amended, would impact our police department’s ability to keep Bolingbrook safe and contains numerous unfunded mandates which will have a negative impact on our budget,” the village said in the statement.

Like other critics, the village argued the changes would cause a “mass exodus of experience officers” from the state.

James Reilly, the 2018 Republican nominee for Will County sheriff and an adjunct professor of criminal and social justice at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, had similar concerns.

“There are parts of the bill that are totally unacceptable,” he said.

Reilly argued that potential changes in qualified immunity, a legal principle which protects government officials from civil suits, would have an adverse effect on officers. While the initial version of the bill gutted qualified immunity in the state, the final version creates a task force to evaluate the issue.

Still, Reilly said he supports enhanced training for officers, especially on mental health awareness, de-escalation techniques and cultural diversity. While he said he approves of finding ways to reduce incarceration for non-violent offenders, he fears this bill’s measures are too excessive.

Nick Ficarello, the former chief of police in Braidwood, also saw some positives in the legislation. Specifically, he agreed officers should be equipped with body cameras.

“It adds an air of transparency to what police do,” he said.

Ficarello still said the legislation was a “knee jerk reaction” to the protests last year in response to the high profile deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers.

Republicans like Ficarello also criticized lawmakers for passing the bill near the very end of the lame duck session.

But state Sen. John Connor, D-Lockport, said he felt the accusations that the bill was rushed were “a little bit disingenuous.”

While Connor could not vote on the bill because he was recovering from COVID-19, he participated in several hours of hearings and debate over specific provisions last year while still a member of the Illinois House.

He added that lawmakers hoped to pass the bill during a proper veto session last fall, but the session was canceled as COVID-19 infections soared in the state.

“It was going to be difficult anyway you sliced it,” he said.

Connor conceded the bill was “ambitious” and said he heard from police chiefs and officers with concerns. He passed along those concerns to his colleagues.

Still, he supported changes to licensing for officers and requiring body cameras.

As for whether or not Connor would have voted for the bill though, he said it was a difficult call since he was not directly involved in the final negotiations.

Still, he said he liked that the bill was tweaked from when it was first introduced. For instance, the final version lengthened the deadline for departments, especially smaller ones, to equip all officers with body cameras.

“It was better legislation at the time it passed then when it was filed,” he said.

State. Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, said he supported the bill because he thought the accountability measures are “absolutely necessary to heal the deep divide” in the nation. He also emphasized his support for law enforcement in the past and hoped the reforms passed are a “starting point” to improve the state’s criminal justice system.

“No legislation is perfect,” Hastings said. “While I am disappointed in the social media attacks I have received and the misinformation being propagated, I am listening to everyone providing reasoned criticism and opposition to this legislation.”

In the Senate, McGuire and Hastings voted for the bill while Sen. Meg Loughran Cappel, D-Shorewood, voted against it.

In the House, Reps. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet, and Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, voted yes while Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, Tim Ozinga, R-Mokena, and Sue Rezin, R-Morris, voted no.

Alex Ortiz

Alex Ortiz is a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet. Originally from Romeoville, Ill., he joined The Herald-News in 2017 and mostly covers Will County government, politics, education and more. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree from Northwestern University.