Law Enforcement Watching Lame Duck Session For Criminal Justice Reforms

By Benjamin Cox on January 9, 2021 at 12:39pm

Illinois law enforcement will have a watchful eye on the General Assembly lame duck session this week. The General Assembly is expected to vote on a massive criminal justice reform bill, House Bill 163 that among other things end qualified immunity for police officers, eliminate cash bail, and mandate body cameras for every police department in the state.

Jacksonville Police Chief Adam Mefford says the bill is a mixed bag of good and bad reforms for police officers in the state: “There are lots of things in the bill about taking away qualified immunity for officers, taking away liability protections for officers, taking away protections from civil liability and frivolous lawsuits. There’s a lot to do with use of force. There’s a lot to do with collective bargaining. There’s a whole lot of language about bail reform. Basically, the bill is 611 pages long, and this portion of it has been slid into the bill along with some other things that is good legislation, and then put this in there kind of like some fat around the edges and many of us local law enforcement are definitely against the majority of those things put into that bill. Many of our local police chiefs and administrators have been on the phone in contact with our local legislators expressing our displeasure with portions of the bill.”

Mefford believes that ending qualified immunity for officers will open his department up for frivolous lawsuits against officers simply trying to do their job. Mefford believes that by ending cash bail that it gives more rights to criminals and offenders; and that by mandating body cameras, it will put police departments in bad shape financially. He says it will cost Jacksonville about $75,000 to outfit every city officer with a body camera.

Mefford says that the Jacksonville Police Department began reforming policies four years ago and recently received certification for their use-of-force policies from the U.S. Department of Justice: “There are some different things that they want to put into law about use of force. They are wanting to ban the use of choke holds and things like that. We’ve already done all of that. We banned that 4 years ago. As a matter of fact, I think our policy went back even farther than that about restricting the airway on a suspect while taking them into custody, unless it was a life-or-death situation. If you were defending your life or someone else’s life and there was no other choice, I mean you have to leave some of that leeway in there. Some of these other policies that we have put in places have put us at the forefront in the area on what we are doing as far as training and education, and what we are doing as far as use-of-force policies, de-escalation, and community policing activities.”

Mefford said that many of the department’s policies were written by scholars, lawyers, and law enforcement experts by an outside company to implement best practice for the city. Mefford says its the reason Jacksonville is ahead of the legislation that is now being pursued. Mefford says that the community has bought into the reforms at the local level causing the crime rate to drop three out of the last four years.

The Illinois State Police has also begun to acknowledge reforms across its agency. Yesterday, in a ceremony, they adopted the NAACP’s 10 Shared Principles. The principles were created in March 2018 to help police around the state promote better relationships between law enforcement and communities of color.

The Jacksonville Police Department and the local NAACP chapter adopted the 10 Shared Principles in July 2019. A plaque of the principles now hangs in the hall of the Jacksonville Police Department to remind officers about the prinicples’ meaning and to use them continuously in the community.

ISP Director Brendan Kelly said yesterday that troopers and his agency have implemented the policy through diverse hiring practices and reforms: “At the heart of these values is the trust that is essential to good policing, safe communities, and a just nation. The Illinois State Police has already taken steps to live out these principles within the agency. These include ongoing quarterly trainings for troopers and all of our officers to reinforce that every person should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Senator Elgie Sims of Chicago introduced the sweeping amendments on Thursday ahead of the lame duck session in Springfield. The bill amendments are the result of over 100 hours of hearings held by the Black Caucus over fall and winter months as part of their legislative agenda “to end systemic racism in Illinois” as a result of the numerous killing of Black Americans throughout the country at the hands of police officers.

The bill has seen intense push-back from Republican lawmakers and groups representing law enforcement. The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police called it “the worst thing to happen to our profession” and “the end of the law enforcement profession as we know it” in a statement released Tuesday. However, the legislation has received support from several criminal justice reform groups like the Illinois Justice Project and the Building a Safe Illinois Coalition. The House is expected to vote on the measure during session some time today.