Last month, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law massive changes to the state’s criminal justice system. Since then, supporters and critics continue to weigh in on how the measures will affect members of law enforcement and the community.
There are plenty of victories in the measure for advocates who called for an overhaul in policing and criminal justice in Illinois. Supporters say one is how the state certifies officers and, if necessary, decertifies them. State Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford) says the omnibus bill will help prevent “department hopping.”
“What we've seen a lot happen, not just Illinois, but everywhere is bad actors before they get penalized for whatever they did, they resign and find themselves in a whole different police department in a whole different state." West said. "And moving on, like nothing happened.”
Before, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board could automatically decertify an officer if they were convicted of a felony and or a limited set of misdemeanors. Marie Dillon with the Better Government Association says the new law broadens the boards authority by expanding the range of misconduct.
“This new law gives the law enforcement 'Standards and Training Board' much more discretion to take away certification, including for things like excessive force, perjury, tampering with a video, or any other types of misconduct that are spelled out in this bill.”
Dillon and other transparency advocates say they think for the most part the bill was a home run, but what they do see as concerning is the new transparency language attached to the renewed decertification process.
Under the new law, the Training and Standards Board is empowered to maintain two new databases. The first houses records related to misconduct that led to de-certification. The second carries the investigations into misconduct. Both will be searchable via the Standard Board’s website, but in both cases any information that could identify an officer will be redacted.
Dillon says the question isn't really if the information is accessible to the public but if it provides the public with the information it needs.
“And if you can't see the complete records, including everybody's names, including the records of investigations that were not sustained, then you really can't tell how these decisions are being made and why.”
Matt Topic is an attorney at the Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy, where he leads the firm’s Freedom of Information Request practice. And in 2015 he won the case that released the footage of a Chicago police officer shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Topic says he’s concerned because the training and standards board doesn’t have to disclose the documents it reviews to reach its decision.
“It's really important to see the documents in the context in which the board uses them," Topic said. "And I don't think you're going to be able to do that if you're just chasing down underlying records from some other agency.”
Topic says lawmakers should continue to revisit the changes they made.
“I think the omnibus bill overall does wonderful things for advancing the cause of police accountability in Illinois. And it's unfortunate that there's an issue with transparency in this part of the bill. And it's something that I'm hoping lawmakers will look at and try to correct in a follow up bill.”
At least one of the authors of the measure agrees. West is a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. That’s the group that shepherded the criminal justice omnibus bill through the General Assembly.
West says the law needs refinement. And he says that means bringing in opponents.
“I am working with the Winnebago County Sheriff. And I'm open to working with anyone else up here to clean up language, not to repeal anything that was put in place. But just to clean up anything that was ambiguous.”
West says he wants a little more than just clarity though.
“We didn't get qualified immunity and it is not in the bill. That's the biggest. That's the biggest topic that a lot of people are either passionate about -- passionate about both positively and negatively.”
Qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits against claims they violated a person’s rights. West wants to revisit the doctrine.
And that’s where he loses the Illinois Sheriff’s Association and Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana. Caurana says law enforcement couldn’t do the job without it.
“Qualified immunity protects the officer, like a paramedic from doing the job as long as you're doing in good faith that takes away where they can be held accountable, liable, personally punitive damages, and lose your house and lose everything they work for.”
West says a task force plans to review the legal framework for qualified immunity in Illinois.
Other provisions of the new law include eliminating cash bail by 2023. All law enforcement agencies will also have to use body cameras by 2025. And the measure standardizes police training and use of force across the state.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.