'We're disheartened': Suburban chiefs disappointed by criminal justice bill
No cash bail. No promise of state funding to help pay for and operate mandatory body cameras. No accusers' names on misconduct complaints against police officers, and no sworn affidavits supporting them.
That's some suburban law enforcement leaders' assessment of a sweeping criminal justice bill passed Wednesday by the Illinois General Assembly and now awaiting the signature of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Police leaders we spoke to this week say they welcome much-needed reforms but that the legislation passed this week makes officers' jobs more difficult, and it'll be communities that suffer as a result.
"We're disheartened by what occurred," said Crystal Lake Chief James Black, who's also president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. "We will continue to move forward and we will obviously work to make sure that we are in compliance with the provisions of the state statute, but I just think that, unfortunately, it's going to be our communities and crime victims that are going to be the ones that bear the burden."
"Essentially, it's going to limit some of the good work police officers and detectives can do," Lake Zurich Chief Steve Husak said.
So what's in the bill? A lot. At more than 700 pages, it touches upon nearly every aspect of policing, from body cameras and use of force to officer certification and departments' acquisition of surplus military gear. For a full summary from the Illinois Municipal League, visit www.iml.org/file.cfm?key=20590.
Among the key elements:
• Eliminates the cash bail system effective Jan. 1, 2023, and replaces it with a system to be developed by the courts. That system will determine pretrial release according to a defendant's alleged crime, risk of skipping court, and the threat or danger the defendant may pose if released.
• Allows use of force only to prevent physical harm to officers or others, and bans chokeholds and restraints above the shoulders that can restrict breathing -- except when deadly force is required. Officers must give a warning before using deadly force, and they must intervene if another officer uses excessive force.
• Makes it easier to decertify and fire problematic officers and creates three databases -- one private and two public -- to maintain information about every state police officer's certification status and history of misconduct.
• Requires every department in the state to equip its officers with body-worn cameras by 2025. However, unlike previous versions, the legislation won't strip state funding from those that fail to comply. Instead, those that do comply will receive preferential treatment when seeking grants.
• Bans police departments from acquiring certain military gear, including tracked armored vehicles.
• A particularly contentious measure to eliminate qualified immunity for police officers in lawsuits was left out, replaced with the creation of a task force to examine the proposal and issue a recommendation.
Why police are concerned
Chiefs we spoke with say they embrace portions of the bill making it easier to fire bad cops, but not much else.
Husak believes the elimination of cash bail could put the public, and particularly crime victims, at risk.
"We want to be fair to people accused of crimes, but we also have to be fair to the victims," he said. "My concern is, if there is no consequence, a person can go out and commit other crimes."
Body cameras are a great tool, he said, but the cost to purchase them, pay for video storage and hire help to maintain the system and respond to record requests aren't addressed in the bill.
"Not that we're opposed to (cameras), but it would be nice to have some financial assistance from the state to go along with that," Black said.
Police also are concerned about a measure in the bill allowing citizens to file formal misconduct complaints anonymously and without a sworn affidavit backing their claims.
"That opens up a Pandora's box of targeting an officer by anybody," Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain said.
They're even more disappointed at how the General Assembly pushed through the legislation during this week's final quick session before lawmakers' new terms began, with the Senate's vote coming at about 4 a.m. After dozens of hours of hearings and testimony on reform proposals last summer and fall, they say, lawmakers ultimately dismissed much of their input.
"To have something like this rammed through in a lame-duck session, I just think is a bit disingenuous," Black told us. "Certainly we want law enforcement to be transparent, but you know, where's the demand for transparency from our state lawmakers?"
Prosecutors weigh in
Unlike police leaders, who seem almost uniformly opposed to the bill, Chicago-area state's attorneys are more divided on the bill and what it means.
Cook County State's Attorney Kimberly Foxx and Lake County State's Attorney Eric Rinehart each issued statements Wednesday endorsing the legislation. In defending the elimination of cash bail, Rinehart cited the case of Antioch teen Kyle Rittenhouse, who's charged with killing two men during civil unrest Aug. 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and is free after supporters raised $2 million bail.
"It will prevent the gross disparity we see between holding a nonviolent offender on a small bail while Kyle Rittenhouse is released in Wisconsin because supporters posted millions," he said.
But McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally labeled the bill "wrong, disastrous, and dangerous on so many levels."
"Criminal justice reform is something we should all work on together," he added in a written statement. "It is not something that should be dictated to the entire state by a few narrowly interested politicians in Chicago."
New Kane County State's Attorney Jamie Mosser said the bill contains a lot of great ideas, and she supports the concept of ending cash bail.
She worries, however, about limiting the discretion of judges. An earlier version of the bill limited when judges could impose cash bail, such as when there is an "identifiable victim" who could be in danger.
"I think it takes out the ability to hold somebody who really is a danger to the community," Mosser said, such as a serial arsonist or a repeat drunken driver.
Pritzker this week voiced support for many of the bill's elements, but he stopped short of promising to sign it as is. If he does, many of the measures go into effect July 1.
Black said he isn't holding his breath that much will change.
"Certainly there's always that hope," he said. "It would be great if (Pritzker) would reach out to us and ask us what are the provisions in the bill that are most troubling."
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