Illinois SAFE-T Act 9/11/22

Politics with Richard Bleil

Already the Republicans are up in arms, denouncing what they are calling a democratically-led middle-of-the-night vote to pass a police reform bill that will allow kidnappers go free. And, again, they miss the point.

Illinois has been in the national spotlight for a very long time for having what appears to be some of the worst racially biased police work in the nation. As I recall, they have been found to be more likely to use violence in encounters with black citizens than white, black citizens are more likely to be stopped and searched, and Chicago has all-white police departments in districts that are comprised of mostly minority citizens. They also have similar problems that reflect national trends of longer sentences for minorities, exceedingly lop-sided incarceration of minority population in jails, and excessive sentences for minor offenses such as marijuana possession for minorities.

Like any piece of legislation, there is no doubt that there will be problems with this new law. It will take time to find and iron-out the wrinkles, and again, we’ll see a divide between the parties as to if there will be an effort to fix those problems, or to simply try to eliminate it. We’ve seen this in a glaring spotlight with the Affordable Care Act. As a major reform legislation written by the Democrats, the Republican party was quick to point out its shortcomings, but instead of trying to fix it (or replace it as they constantly promised by never delivered), they simply picked it apart through lawsuits until it became but a shadow of its original version. This is what partisan politics gives us, and why I have been calling for an end of the two-party system.

The SAFE-T act is an attempt to address some of these inequities and will no doubt be carefully watched nationally as a model for other states, and it should be mentioned that the legislatures worked closely with police chiefs and sheriffs in its formulation. Some of them balked but accepted it as preferable over alternate legislation, but most are on-board with it.

First, it eliminates the cash bail system. This is in response to higher bails (on average) for minorities. In other words, when arrested, more people will be released on their own recognizance without bail. The exception is for those that the police can prove are a menace to society and for violent crimes, which some are criticizing as being difficult to prove in the forty-eight hours provided for in the bill. I don’t understand this criticism. Yes, if somebody is arrested for possession, it will be difficult to put together the proof that they’re more dangerous than the crime for which they are being arraigned, but if somebody is arrested for kidnapping, murder, assault, they will still have bail because of the nature of the crime.

Second, the bill allows for those arrested to make up to three calls in an hour on being arrested, or when they are being moved from one facility to another. This is designed to allow detainees to call their attorney and to inform loved ones and family of their location and explain their situation. I can see problems with this, and it has been pointed out that police are not allowed to “eavesdrop” on these calls or monitor who, exactly, they are calling. This means that the detainee could call the victim and threaten or harass them to prevent them from pursuing charges, which is a problem especially in cases of domestic abuse. However, these issues can easily be mitigated with follow-up legislation.

The law requires police to undergo and complete certification training. When I worked with law enforcement, the department with which I worked was accredited (one of the few in the nation), and I can’t help but wonder if a blanket accreditation would be accepted for all officers in a department or not. The certification requirement is one of the components where police unions took umbrage. The complaint wasn’t the certification per se, but rather the time provided for certification in the earlier drafts. This time period was extended in response to those concerns.

The law restricts use of deadly force only when an officer is defending themselves to prevent bodily harm. They are not permitted to use deadly force on fleeing suspects if that suspect is a danger to society. This is how it should be. Choke holds and shooting suspects in the back for possession is one of the greatest criticisms we’ve seen against police recently, but if there is an individual suspected of murder or shootings, yes, I agree they should not be allowed to escape. However, police will no doubt have to justify their use of deadly action under this legislation, and frankly they should. Deadly force should always be the last effort.

Finally, all officers will be required to wear body cameras. I agree with this, but it may be premature. The Republicans, of course, are calling this a de facto attempt to defund the police because there will be enormous expense to comply. The cameras themselves are not that expensive (especially when compared to the cost of other equipment the police carry), but people forget that there is cost associated with servers to download and store the videos as well. Honestly, though, most (if not all) police departments already have much of this infrastructure in place with their cruiser cameras if they can just “piggyback” this new source of video onto it. Some updates and expansion may be required, but I don’t think it will be the issue that people are making of it. The true problems, and why I say it may be premature, is that there are also citizen rights in jeopardy. The question becomes one of if citizens who do not want to be recorded can ask that the cameras be turned off, and under what circumstances do these rights exist. Will victims be able to request the cameras be turned off if it’s law? Will those being arrested be able to request the cameras be turned off since they haven’t been convicted yet? And what happens if an officer turns off the camera on request and forgets to turn it back on? I suspect there will be cases where the claim will be that the officer turned off the camera because they knew they were about to break the law. So, while I think body cams are a good thing to protect both citizens and police officers, there still needs to be some work.

Regardless of the problems, though, I’m happy to see a major attempt to address the problems of racism and police brutality. I hope it helps not only reduce these incidents, but also to repair the relationships between neighborhoods and police departments.

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