Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk weighed in on the debate over police reform during Tuesday’s Joliet City Council meeting, arguing there was a “war on police” in the state and country.
The mayor’s comments came after multiple residents of a near west side neighborhood complained to the council of recent shootings in the area. They pleaded with the city to do something about the violence.
Councilmen Larry Hug first said that although the Joliet Police Department was doing what it could, he argued the police reform law the state legislature passed earlier this year is “tying our officers’ hands further” in stopping crime. Specifically he pointed to the ending of cash bail, a provision which takes effect in 2023.
“We’re going to fight it here as a city,” Hug said.
Hug said it was “tough to take the arrows from the bad guys, but then take the arrow in your back from Springfield, and that’s what we’re up against.”
O’Dekirk agreed with Hug’s assertion.
“This can’t be understated. The war on police that’s gone on in our country and in our state the last year is going to have a toll,” O’Dekirk said. “You’re going to see it in your neighborhoods.”
O’Dekirk also said a proposal was in the works to get rid of qualified immunity, a legal principle which protects government officials from civil lawsuits. He said such a proposal “would effectively mean you’re not going to have police protection.”
“So if you’re concerned about it ... please call your state senators and your state representatives,” he said. “Two of them voted yes on this (law), and tell them what they’re doing to your neighborhood and your community and urge them to repeal some of the legislation they just put through. It’s going to be a nightmare, not just for Joliet, but for a lot of communities throughout the state.”
Although some legislators and activists have argued for the reform or ending of qualified immunity, the law the General Assembly passed does neither. Instead, the law created an 18-member task force to review qualified immunity in the state.
O’Dekirk told The Herald-News on Thursday the effort to change or get rid of qualified immunity was a “ridiculous idea,” but also declined to further comment on the matter.
Attorneys for the city of Joliet have cited qualified immunity as one of the city’s defenses in the federal lawsuit filed by Nicole Lurry, the widow of Eric Lurry, whose overdose death in police custody at a Joliet hospital sparked protests last summer.
“Defendants did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, thus entitling them to qualified immunity,” the city’s attorneys said in a Sept. 30 court filing.
The city’s attorneys also raised qualified immunity as a defense in the lawsuit filed against Joliet Police Officer Nicholas Crowley. A jury in that case reached a verdict on July 1 in favor of plaintiff Christopher Simenson and against Crowley and the city.
State Sen. John Connor, D-Lockport, said O’Dekirk was correct in the sense that there were some lawmakers who argued for nixing qualified immunity, but their views didn’t reflect the mainstream opinions of the legislature.
Connor said the task force mostly is weighted in favor of those who likely will be against any serious changes to the legal doctrine. The task force will include members of the public and legislators, along with representatives of law enforcement and the judicial system.
“[Qualified immunity is] about as safe as it could be,” he said.
Although Connor said he supported some provisions of the new law, he didn’t actually vote on the bill because he was out sick recovering from COVID-19 at the time. Still, he said, even members of law enforcement acknowledged reforms were needed.
However, he also said that with the increased attention on police misconduct after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the national debate on reform became heated. He also blamed former President Donald Trump for exacerbating the divisiveness of the debatve and creating a “dichotomy of us versus them” with his pro-police stance.
Although Connor said it would be unfair to blame the new law for any recent rise in crime since many of the provisions haven’t even taken effect yet, he said he empathizes with law enforcement officers because of the scrutiny they have been under.
“It’s been a very difficult year,” he said.
On Tuesday, O’Dekirk also touched on the difficulties specific to the Joliet Police Department, which officials say is facing a staffing shortage. Joliet City Manager James Capparelli pointed to staffing problems in arguing for the city’s withdrawal from an auto theft task force this week, although the City Council didn’t go along with the idea.
Capparelli said at Tuesday’s public safety committee meeting that “we’re scrambling to get police officers” and that the amount of hours officers are having to work without getting any time off “puts tremendous stress on them.”
“It makes them make bad decisions; and then when they do make bad decisions, next thing you know we’re prosecuting police officers for things they’ve done because they haven’t been able to get a break,” Capparelli said.
The council did approve the addition of five officers for the city’s department.
O’Dekirk said the department is in need of more officers, partly because of attrition, but also because of the city’s hiring freeze and the shutting down of the police academy which trains officers hired by Joliet, as a result of the pandemic.
“That ultimately is the answer: getting enough people back on the street,” he said.
The mayor also announced Tuesday that the city reached a tentative labor contract agreement with the police patrol officers union. The union’s membership will have to approve the contract before it is implemented.