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Illinois lawmakers will consider police reform, but defunding isn’t on the agenda

Belleville News Democrat

Monday, June 29, 2020  |  Article  |  By Kelsey Landis

Minorities (66) , Police (28) Belt, Christopher--State Senate, 57

“If I were you, I would turn your hat around.”

That’s what a white police officer told state Sen. Christopher Belt, who was wearing his baseball cap backwards when he was pulled over for driving 5 mph below the speed limit early one morning two years ago in a predominately white metro-east town, which he declined to name.

Belt, who is Black, was in the car with his teenage son. As the officer approached, the Democrat from Cahokia told his son everything was going to be OK, and they put their hands on the dashboard. They asked permission to reach for their drivers licenses.

“It was all, ‘Yes sir, no sir, can I get you my license sir?’ just to be told to turn your hat around,” Belt said.

It’s exactly what Black parents fear: their child profiled, pulled over on false pretense for a police encounter ending in death. Fortunately, Belt’s encounter did not end in violence.

“All my friends have similar stories,” he said.

Belt, 47, now the chairman of the Illinois Senate Black Caucus, says those are the types of interactions he hopes to address with police reforms in the fall veto session.

The Legislative Black Caucus — a bicameral group of state senators and representatives — summer agenda includes brainstorming for reform as civil unrest continues nationwide following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some have called for defunding police departments, or reallocating money in their budgets in favor of social services.

Among their ideas, “defunding the police” is not one of them, said Belt, who served as a law enforcement officer for 18 years before getting into politics. He worked for 16 years at the St. Clair County Probation Department and then for the state Department of Juvenile Justice from 2013 to 2015.

“This is not an affront on the police. ... What they do day in and day out, they’re real-life superheroes,” Belt said. “But by the same token, the law has to be applied evenly and equally to everyone.”

The state’s police union, however, is prepared for “anti-police” legislation, according to a statement to members from Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, and its labor council executive director, Shawn Roselieb.

“While your true colors are shining through during recent crises, the true colors of our politicians will be coming to light soon as many will bend to the will of the loudest, most divisive voices in our society.”

Police reform measures

Belt and other caucus members plan to propose as legislation in the fall veto session this November and December.

“We do know of course it’s going to have to be a statewide response,” said state Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, “and also something that focuses on holding bad police officers accountable.”

The ideas include:

  • Licensing for police officers
  • A ban on no-knock warrants
  • Special prosecutors to police misconduct cases to eliminate potential local bias
  • Mandatory body cameras for police statewide
  • More implicit bias training
  • ”Duty to intervene” legislation

These steps represent a good start, said Thomas Trice, a retired law enforcement officer who now teaches courses for police officers in training.

Illinois is already “ahead of the curve,” he noted. Chokeholds and other tactics to restrict air flow were removed “from all Illinois police officer training,” according to the police union.

Some of the proposals from the Black caucus would be easier to implement than others, Trice said.

Elimination of no-knock warrants, where officers can enter a residence without warning, should be one of the easier fixes, in Trice’s view. Out of the hundreds of warrants he served in his 23 years as an officer, he can remember only one no-knock.

“I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of push-back from law enforcement on that,” Trice said.

Critics of licensing say it prevents people from entering the force. But creating a “higher barrier” with required education for licensing could bring some “diversity of thought versus stereotypical ideals” to police departments, Trice said. Losing a license for misconduct could also prevent bad cops from moving from department to department.

But other issues are more complicated. A “duty to intervene” law and appointing special prosecutors for misconduct cases allows plenty of room for subjectivity.

The northern Illinois city of Arlington Heights recently passed a rule saying police have a responsibility to stop another officer using force “beyond that which is objectively reasonable.” But what is “objectively reasonable”? And in the case of appointing a special prosecutor, how can government ensure against a political decision?

“The legislators are going to have to work that out in greater detail with the agencies,” Trice said.

Then there’s the issue of money. Body cameras are important, he said, but the state must be willing to help agencies pay for them and to store their data, Trice said. Money for body cameras could go to social programs instead, he added.

Policy debate brews

The last time Illinois lawmakers passed a sweeping police reform bill was in 2015. The law established guidelines for body cameras, ended stop-and-frisk policies and eliminated chokehold training.

The union plans to work with legislators in their next police reform efforts, said Tamara Cummings, general counsel for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council.

“The Illinois FOP Labor Council has been made aware of these issues that are being raised across the State. We look forward to working with the legislature and all interested parties, as we did on the 2015 Illinois Police Reform Law, to discuss these concerns and to work on legislation that will make communities safer for everyone,” Cummings wrote in an email.

But the statement from the union and council to its members suggested a different message.

“Anti-police legislation will be introduced, very few will acknowledge your good works, and fewer still will stand with you in solidarity,” Southwood and Roselieb wrote. “Courage takes many forms, and I urge you to note which of our leaders dares to stand and be counted with those who wear a badge.”

Police groups have invested heavily to make sure key lawmakers stay sympathetic. Nearly annually for decades, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has received thousands in campaign contributions from the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Illinois Police Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

Belt has not received any recent donations from police associations, but he says he’s determined to work with them to relieve police of responsibilities that should belong to mental health professionals and social workers.

“It’s not about going after the institution of police and police officers,” Belt said. “It’s about getting those bad ones out of there and really trying to reimagine the work that they do going forward.”