What suburban police are planning to reform, and what activists say about it

  • Naperville police were out in force at a recent protest in downtown that started peacefully before vandalism and looting arose.

      Naperville police were out in force at a recent protest in downtown that started peacefully before vandalism and looting arose. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A demonstration in Arlington Heights protesting police brutality and supporting Black Lives Matter, like most in the suburbs, went off peacefully. Many of the protesters are calling for reforms in area policing.

      A demonstration in Arlington Heights protesting police brutality and supporting Black Lives Matter, like most in the suburbs, went off peacefully. Many of the protesters are calling for reforms in area policing. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Updated 6/14/2020 11:55 AM
This story has been updated to remove the name of Ahmaud Arbery from a list of people killed by police.

After a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, six years ago, many suburban police departments focused reform efforts on increased accountability and training.

Now, similar calls for reform have resurfaced in response to police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.


Aurora and Kane County sheriff's police are moving to equip officers and deputies with body cameras. Aurora has pledged to make misconduct complaints against officers public. Naperville and Elgin are considering proposals to expand their police and fire commissions to provide more civilian oversight.

Other law enforcement officials are enacting policies, and many are meeting with residents to discuss race and policing.

But scholars and activists who have spent years studying policing say such measures aren't real solutions to racial injustices that have fueled widespread protests against police brutality and racism.

"The continuous failure of all of these reformist reforms over the last several decades is what has brought people to thinking that the real solution that gets at the root problem is to defund the police," said A. Naomi Paik, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor who studies police and prisons.

Ideas for change

The divest-invest model seeks to reverse the trend of expanding police resources and instead redirect funding to institutions and programs that foster public safety and community well-being, whether it be education, mental health services, affordable housing or addiction recovery centers.

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"The broader goal, and I think a lot of police officers would share this goal in some way, is to make policing less central to a lot of people's day-to-day lives, particularly in marginalized communities," said Monica Bell, a Yale Law School professor who researches how police practices reinforce segregation.

Heavy policing in predominantly black communities sends a message that "the world is afraid of you and wants to keep you out of it," Bell said, producing what she calls "legal estrangement."

"This isn't about individual police and their behavior," she said. "It's instead about systems, including police departments, operating together to send messages to black people in particular, but probably not exclusively, that we don't really belong as full members of the body politic. And I think that's what so much of the unrest is about right now."

Bell in her previous research has called for shrinking the footprint of police and "creating a more robust system of civil supports."

"I think what's happening is that movements and communities are building power in order to have a voice about these kind of budgetary matters."


While police and prison abolitionists argue policing cannot be reformed, they do support steps that reduce the scale, tactics and funding of police while working toward their goal of building a society that transforms "the conditions out of which harm happens," Paik said. Those steps include demilitarizing police and rescinding pensions for officers who use excessive force, abolitionist groups say.

Body cameras, by contrast, increase funding as well as surveillance, raising privacy concerns, Paik said. Police also can turn off the cameras.

"A lot of the major episodes of violence that we're aware of, we're aware because there were body cameras, but the episodes still happen," Bell said.

Police response

The Daily Herald recently asked area police officials and activists how they plan to respond to reform efforts.

In Elgin, a city council majority wants to add two more residents to the board of police and fire commissioners, establish a residency requirement for police officers and hire an independent consultant for any internal investigations related to police.

Black Lives Matter supporters in Elgin haven't specifically called for defunding the police, local activist Marcus Banner said. Instead, they have focused on asking the city to force the retirement or resignation of Lt. Chris Jensen -- who fatally shot a woman in 2018 -- and create a civilian review board with the authority to investigate and discipline police officers.

Banner said he thinks the police department is overfunded and has too many officers.

"If they don't give us what we want, then we will start pushing the defunding, and to tear it down and start all over," Banner said.

Aurora organizers have compiled a list of demands calling for body cameras; inclusion of residents in the disciplinary process when an officer may be terminated; residency requirements for police; annual reviews of restraint tactics; monthly open grievance forums; and other measures to hold police accountable.

"Our community is tired of the over-policing in poor and minority communities, systematic racial, and economic bias in our criminal justice system, and the mass incarceration of minorities," Sharonda Roberson wrote in an online petition with nearly 1,300 signatures.

Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman has said she's open to creating a civilian oversight board. Such boards usually aren't given subpoena power to fully investigate alleged offenses, because of police union protections, Bell said.

Ziman's spokesman, Paris Lewbel, said the department long has wanted body cameras to increase transparency and accountability, but there are high costs associated with the cameras and the storage of the video. "Without the funding, we can't afford to purchase body cameras or afford the costs associated with storing the recorded video," he said.

Lewbel said nearly 91% of the department's annual budget goes to personnel costs.

"Defunding police will mean less personnel, resulting in slower response to 911 calls in an emergency, not responding to all calls for service, and fewer officers to engage and connect with the community," he said via email.

The department agrees with calls for additional resources for the community, but Lewbel said police cannot bolster "training, accountability and transparency without funding to our police department."

In Des Plaines, officers are well-trained at being police, said Chief William Kushner, who has spent 43 years in law enforcement.

But problems arise when they're asked to address other issues, such as substance abuse or mental health crises, a trend that began during the 1980s with the closing of mental health centers.

The response was "let the police handle it," Kushner said.

Naperville Chief Robert Marshall said he attended a conference hosted by the Center for Problem Oriented Policing that listed 240 problems commonly assigned to police.

Many scenarios on the list could be better handled by those specializing in mental or physical health, social services, housing or insurance, Marshall said.

Landlord-tenant disputes and private-property clashes are among cases Marshall said may not require a sworn-officer response.

"We're inserted as the police in a conflict situation, and sometimes things don't go well," he said. "I try to look at, 'Why do we send police to that?'"

The answer typically relates to money or time, he said. Other agencies that could help often lack funding or aren't open all hours of the day.

"Maybe we're getting to a point where we need some other organizations to step up and take some of these responsibilities away from police," Marshall said.

If the Arlington Heights police budget were cut by 10% and those funds reallocated, Chief Nicholas Pecora said he'd have to consider pulling officers out of the schools, collapsing the community services bureau and the traffic unit. But surveys indicate residents rank traffic enforcement as a priority, Pecora said.

He intends to "wait a short while for state or federal legislatures to work on police reform."

"I don't want to make wholesale changes to operating guidelines and then two months from now federal legislation comes down with mandates on police reform," he said.

Pecora says he has received multiple suggestions for improvements, including initiating a "duty to intervene" policy, which requires police to stop or attempt to stop inappropriate uses of force by fellow officers. He said he is going to enact the measure immediately.

That policy was on the books in Minneapolis, but police still didn't intervene while an officer knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded "I can't breathe."

Paik, the University of Illinois professor, encourages broader discussions about the way police operate.

"Why do you want to spend your money, your tax dollars on solutions that have proved over decades not to work? Why don't we try something else?"

• Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, Marie Wilson, Barbara Vitello and Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.

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