The 2021 Illinois Police and Criminal Justice Reform Bill

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Representative Ammons and Governor Pritzker speak about the reform bill at the U of I College of Law on February 25

On February 22, Governor Pritzker signed House Bill 3653. This bill, rather a composite omnibus of many bills, was sponsored by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in both the Illinois House and Senate. Several of the individual bills were sponsored by our own Representative Carol Ammons. The provisions do not take effect immediately. Over the next couple of years, implementation commissions or task forces will study how the different provisions can be implemented. It is a very long bill, so I just want to cover what I think are some of the highlights.

Proscriptions on Police Behavior

Let’s begin with proscriptions on certain police practices that have resulted in harm or death to civilians. The police will no longer be able to use chokeholds or restraints above the shoulder that could cause asphyxiation, as in the cases of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York City and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Both men warned officers that they could not breathe, to no avail. They were killed by the police over petty issues, illegally selling cigarettes on the sidewalk (Garner) and passing a counterfeit $20 bill (Floyd).

The police will no longer be permitted to use deadly force in cases of property crimes, or to prevent an escape unless such escape would pose a threat to the lives of other people.

The police will no longer be permitted to shoot projectiles into a crowd, or use chemical agents, unless they have given an order to disperse and allowed time for people to comply with the order.

There are also requirements that are imposed on police officers. If officers shoot or wound people, they will be required to render medical assistance, in contrast to how Michael Brown was permitted to lie dying unattended for hours after being shot by the police in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, again over a minor issue.

Officers will be required to intervene to prevent the unauthorized use of force by other officers, and forbidden from retaliating against other officers who intervene or report unauthorized force.

Officers will face Class 3 felony charges if they: misrepresent facts on any report; withhold knowledge of another officer doing so (to end the “blue wall of silence”); or fail to comply with this law’s mandate that they wear and turn on body cameras. (The law actually reads “with state law or departmental policy,” presumably in case a department’s camera policy is even more stringent than the state law).

In order to prevent retaliation by the police, people will be able to submit complaints against police behavior anonymously, just as they can submit tips on crime by non-police officers anonymously.

A More Humane Approach to Stops and Detention

There is also a lessening of the harsh consequences when a person is stopped and arrested.

First, Illinois will be first state in the nation to abolish cash bail. (For more on this aspect, see Carol Leff’s article in this issue.) This will not apply to persons deemed to be a threat to the community or a flight risk, or charged with certain kinds of serious crimes like murder or sex offenses. This is a crucial change because people who are accused, but not convicted, can lose their abilities to provide for themselves and their families while sitting in jail. Additionally, the bill provides for less frequent, and less restrictive, use of electronic home monitoring.

Also, for traffic and Class B and C misdemeanors, and for other petty and business offenses, citations rather than custodial arrests will be used. This will also be the case for people with mental health problems who commit lower-level offenses, unless they pose a threat to others. Again, these should reduce the number of people who have not been convicted, but who nonetheless can sit in jails, sometimes for very long periods and suffer the external consequences.

Once someone is arrested, that person will have the right to contact free of charge an attorney of their choice and family members as soon as possible, but at least within three hours. Detainees will also be able to retrieve numbers from their cell phones, and make three phone calls. Each holding building, police station or jail will be required to post signs informing prisoners of these rights. The right to make calls will be renewed after each move to a new holding location.

Some other reforms mandate better conditions for pregnant prisoners, reducing charges for juveniles charged with possession or intent to sell methamphetamines from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor, and giving prisoners who get an associate degree 120 days off their sentences. Increased police training is also mandated in the bill.

Statewide Accountability

In an article that I wrote in the September 2019 issue of the Public i, I advocated that discipline should be eliminated from contracts with the police unions and become a matter of municipal policy. This bill does not completely do that. But it does prevent bargaining agreements from shielding officers from discipline for misconduct and use-of-force violations, which is a huge change.

I have already said that officers who misrepresent facts on reports, withhold knowledge of another office doing it or fail to comply with camera mandates will face Class 3 penalties. Aside from possible prosecution in the courts, they will face possible decertification by a state certification board. A commission will have to determine more precisely how the future disciplinary procedure will work, for example if local police chiefs, other city officials or civilian review boards could refer such abusive officers to the state board that would investigate the charges and decertify the officer if the board finds that the charges are valid. Municipalities can only hire or retain state-certified officers, and all officers must be recertified every three years.

That would overcome some of the impediments imposed on police accountability by union contracts and the obligation to go to arbitration, factors that presently make it virtually impossible for departments and cities to get rid of abusive officers.

The one thing that the Black caucus wanted in this bill, but was unable to get because of police union and Republican opposition, was the elimination of “qualified immunity.” This shields police officers from civil suits by victims of police abuse. Instead, it created a task force “to develop policies and procedure to review and reform qualified immunity” for police.

What we have now is small cities paying out thousands of dollars, and large cities millions, to settle civil cases against abusive officers. The cities buy insurance to cover at least some of these settlements, and pay out of city funds for the rest. But the offending officers pay nothing, and can go on committing other offenses that keep on costing the cities more and more in insurance costs and direct payouts.

Lifting this immunity would expose officers to the possibility of civil suits by victims, or the families of victims, they have harmed through excessive force. Naturally, the police unions strongly oppose this, saying that no one would risk becoming a police officer with this kind of liability. It is obviously not in their interest to consider that the police unions themselves might insure the officers rather than taxpayers. Indeed, that might provide an additional motive for police to be more careful about how they treat citizens.

But that was a step too far. In any case, this bill represents an enormous step forward in advancing the rights of individuals, and not only people of color, when they interface with the police. And hopefully it will reduce the need for the huge taxpayer payouts because of bad officer behavior.

Belden Fields is an activist and writer on human rights and social justice. He is the author of Rethinking Human Rights for the New Millennium, and has written many articles on the violation of those rights by the police. In 2013, he received the Victor J. Stone Award for a lifetime of service to civil liberties from the Champaign County ACLU.
























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