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Lawmakers Push for Chicago Police Accountability With New Legislation in Springfield

New legislation from Illinois’ state capital wants to change the way police misconduct is handled.

BY Adeshina Emmanuel

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'The public will is there, the political will is there, and people want change -- so we have to bring it.'

Many Chicago residents are looking to the Justice Department or City Hall to address problems at the Chicago Police Department, but Chicagoans might want to keep an eye on Springfield, too. Lawmakers in the state capitol are trying to pass several pieces of legislation that could have an impact on issues related to police accountability in Illinois’ biggest city and the rest of the state.  Two major targets for reform are the process that shapes how civilians file complaints against police, and the destruction of police misconduct records.

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (D-5th district) says negotiations are underway to package some of the proposed laws into a giant omnibus bill that won’t face obstacles in the House or Senate “so we can pass the bill this session.” 

“The public will is there, the political will is there, and people want change—so we have to bring it,” says Van Pelt, who is involved in efforts behind several of the laws.

State Rep. Elgie R. Sims (D-34th District)  is one of the key figures leading discussions. “I would imagine we’re going to have some more meetings in the next week that will get this process rolling and ultimately, by May 31, I think we’ll have a package that will address these issues,” Sims says.

Abolishing the affidavit step

One bill introduced by State Sen. Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-16th district) in mid-February would amend the Uniform Peace Officers' Disciplinary Act, also known as the “Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights,” to remove the requirement that civilians fill out a sworn affidavit to file a police complaint. Van Pelt, a co-sponsor, says it’s a candidate for the omnibus bill, though she says that isn’t set in stone.

Over a four-year period ending in December 2014, investigators threw out at least 17,700 complaints of police misconduct because civilians failed to fulfill the requirement, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of CPD records—58 percent of the complaints filed during that span.

Luis Carrizales, a policy associate with the Community Renewal Society, has been lobbying lawmakers to sign on Collins’ bill as sponsors or pledge their vote for the senate proposal. He said there’s been more receptiveness to the law since the Chicago Police Task Force recommended abolishing the affidavit step in Chicago’s police union contracts, which mirrors the state law.

He said that people fear retribution from police as well as legal repercussions, given that they sign the documents under penalty of perjury.

“When you tell somebody if we don’t believe that your story is true we could charge you with a criminal offense, I think people say this is not worth my time,” Carrizales says.

But Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo, whose union represents rank-and-file cops, has insisted that the affidavit requirement is necessary to weed out frivolous or false complaints from criminals seeking retribution for police cracking down on them and people who have a vendetta against cops.

Sean Smoot, director and chief legal counsel for the Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois, which represents police supervisors in Chicago, says his organization has supported the affidavit requirement. But he recused himself from discussing it given his role on the Commission for Police Professionalism, which he says would review it as one of several specific legislative issues being brought before it.

Collins' bill was introduced a month after State Rep. Mary E. Flowers introduced a law that also seeks to eliminate the affidavit requirement but has been stalled in the rules committee, according to a story by City Bureau and the Chicago Reporter. The law would also bar police from keeping private the name of an officer involved in a shooting.

Preserving police misconduct records

Last week the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Justice Department has issued a “document preservation notice” to the police department that temporarily halts the destruction of misconduct files dating back to 1967. Bills are also moving through both the House and Senate that seek to stop police unions from destroying decades worth of police misconduct records as an interpretation of their contracts with the city.

A bill, introduced in March by Van Pelt would amend the Local Records Act so that “all records related to complaints, investigations, and adjudications of police misconduct shall be permanently retained and may not be destroyed.”

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th District) is trying to change the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act so police unions cannot bargain over the destruction of cops' disciplinary records. His bill, introduced in February, would also change the Local Records Act to preserve police misconduct record, similar to a senate bill introduced by Van Pelt. 

Ford says he has the backing of the Attorney General’s office and the Better Government Association because “it’s the right thing to do in Illinois to make sure police misconduct records are kept.”

“Why would you want to destroy something if you don’t have to, and what are you trying to hide?” Ford says, echoing other critics of the contract provision who say that the records could hold clues to past misconduct and be useful to analyze for long-term pattern and practices of abuse at CPD.

The Chicago Police Accountability Task Force argued in its report: “The provision requiring destruction of records should be eliminated. The rule is in tension, if not outright conflict, with general principles of public record-keeping, deprives the public of important information that is rightfully theirs, and may include the destruction of information that serves numerous operational and public policy objectives.”

Ford said there have been negotiations with police unions related to his bill. But Ford, who said a vote could happen for the law by May 31st, admits, “I don’t think they would probably ever agree to a bill like this.”

Smoot offered some insight into why that might be.

“When people say we should keep records of allegations which have not been proved or substantiated on anybody, any public employee for an indeterminate amount of time, I think I would not want that if I was a public employee,” Smoot says.

He says officers would fear that mere allegations could be held against them and hurt their chances of promotions or be cause for other adverse employment action.

“Even somebody convicted of a felony can have it expunged from their record at some point,” Smoot says. “We’re going to tell people who have only been accused that that remains on their record their entire career? I think that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth, and I get it.”

Sims said that law enforcement interests are involved in discussions with legislators and giving input about police reform efforts downstate, but he wouldn’t get into what issues they are pushing back on.

“If you are looking at changes to the system there will be push back, but does push back equate to inaction?” Sims says. “It doesn’t mean it’s something we can’t work through.”

Other omnibus possibilities

Van Pelt says the police reform package lawmakers are negotiating could include measures from a bill she introduced that would make it harder for cities to withhold videos of police-involved shootings.

Rules that would establish independent investigations of alleged police-involved sexual misconduct are also being considered, Sims says. CPD currently investigates accusations of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct against its officers internally.

The offenses fall outside the jurisdiction of the Independent Police Review Authority, which is supposed to investigate some of the worst allegations of police misconduct.

Van Pelt acknowledges that with districts in the Chicago area that include many of the communities that suffer disproportionately from police misconduct, Chicago-area legislatures might feel more political urgency than others in the general assembly.

But she says the conversation around police reform is bigger than Chicago.

“I’m focused on Chicago because I’m in Chicago, my whole district is in Chicago,” Van Pelt says. “But this is a national problem, and people know that.”

Adeshina Emmanuel is an independent Chicago-based journalist and an Ida B. Wells Fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. He is a former reporter for DNAinfo Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Reporter.

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