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State Watch: Police Reform in Illinois

Three ways Illinois’ new criminal justice law reduces structural barriers to police accountability and transparency

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is joined by lawmakers and community advocates, including state Rep. Justin Slaughter, left, and state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., right, as he signs HB 3653, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill on Feb. 22, 2021 at Chicago State University. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP)

The violent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police sparked a nationwide movement for policing reform. This week, that energy was turned into legislative action when Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a sweeping criminal justice package, which also covers policing reforms. The new law, House Bill 3653, which was spearheaded by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, includes a statewide use-of-force policy, mandates crisis intervention training, and creates greater balance between collective bargaining rights and accountability.

While the law touches on many aspects of police reform, it implements three broad policies that will help Illinois reduce or eliminate structural barriers to police reform: Standardizing use of force, mandating data collection and transparency, and enhancing certification and decertification.

#1 Standardizes Use of Force 

Inappropriate use of force by officers — which can include physical confrontations, and use of batons, tasers or firearms — has worked to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve. Existing data shows that police often resort to force, and that officers are more likely to use that force against people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, people with mental health concerns, and people with low incomes. This pattern of force weakens trust in law enforcement and undermines public safety. Formal use of force policies can prevent officers from engaging in unnecessary and dangerous violence against the public. Unfortunately, these policies are inconsistent between departments and often out of date. Data about officer use of force is critical to holding agencies accountable, but that information is often walled off from the public.

The Illinois law starts to address this systemic problem by creating a statewide use of force standard and mandating better data collection — policies that should be considered by other states:

  • Further restricts the use of deadly force on a fleeing person by requiring an officer to consider the totality of the circumstances before using force that will cause death or great bodily harm and that such force is only justified where the officer reasonably believes the person cannot be arrested at a later date and the person is likely to cause great bodily harm to another
  • Requires officers to make a reasonable effort to identify himself or herself as a peace officer and issue a warning that deadly force will be used unless the officer has reasonable grounds to believe the person is already aware of those facts
  • Ensures that officers are not permitted to use deadly force on a person that is only a threat to himself or herself and does not pose a threat of death or serious bodily injury to the peace officer or another person 
  • Requires regular submission of use of force information to the FBI National Use of Force Database
  • Imposes a duty to intervene upon officers who witness excessive use of force by another officer and to render medical aid when necessary

#2 Mandates Data Collection and Transparency

Today, broad cross-sections of society do not trust the police to act fairly, ethically and in the public’s best interests. A lack of transparency by law enforcement contributes to this mistrust. An absence of data regarding use of force, complaints and traffic stops works to obfuscate how police actually use their powers. Without this information, the public lacks a fundamental knowledge necessary to advocate for better police policies and practices. Meanwhile, the people who do know what’s happening within departments, such as police leaders, fail to hold officers accountable for excessive force, fail to discipline bad actors,” and refuse to share details with the public concerning serious incidents. 

The new Illinois law recognizes the need for greater transparency and works to make public information about policing practices:

  • Requires all public and nonpublic records related to complaints, investigations, and adjudications of police misconduct be permanently retained 
  • Departments are now required to report officer use of force, including incidents that result in death or great bodily injury, to the Illinois State Police every month 
  • Expands the officer misconduct database

#3 Enhances Certification and Decertification 

A 2017 Washington Post investigation found that officers who were fired from departments for misconduct or criminal behavior often go on to be hired by other departments. Some are even rehired by the same agency that dismissed them. Weak and inconsistent state decertification rules allow officers with records of serious misconduct to remain in law enforcement. Municipal police departments rely on standard background checks that do not uncover internal misconduct. Informal reference checks may involve co-workers who are hesitant to reveal the nature of an officer’s separation. Statewide decertification can ensure that officers with a record of misconduct are kept far away from a badge and a gun. 

Illinois is taking steps in the right direction by establishing clear criteria and procedures for revoking an officer’s license: 

  • Allows for the automatic termination of police officer convicted of a felony offense
  • Establishes a process that allows the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board to seek decertification for misconduct that does not rise to the felony conviction level, such as tampering with a body-worn camera for the purpose of concealing or destroying evidence
  • Creates the Illinois Law Enforcement Certification Review Panel to review decertification cases against officers 
  • Outlines the process for receiving and reviewing violations, notice and hearing requirements, and the appeals process
  • Provides for greater transparency by requiring the Board to maintain a public portal to search officer agency affiliation and certification status. 
  • Requires agencies looking to hire an officer to review the Professional Misconduct Database before employment is offered

Funding the reforms

Overall, it is encouraging to see Illinois moving forward with sweeping reform, and that Governor Pritzer’s budget brief reflects an intent to support the reforms through funding measures. 

As states begin implementing long overdue regulations of police departments, it is also important that law enforcement agencies at the local and state level have the funding to effectively implement and sustain much-needed reforms. This is an area where the federal government has a serious role to play. Congress and the Biden-Harris administration should reexamine the purpose and impact of Department of Justice grants, which can be a powerful tool for strengthening police accountability and transparency. Federal support will be critical to incentivize and maintain police reforms at the local and state level.