Major changes to Illinois’ criminal justice system that passed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder will begin to take effect Thursday, including a requirement that police track and report to the state incidents in which officers use a gun on someone, when use of force results in death or serious injury, and when they’re dispatched to deal with someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Most folks, when they think about the SAFE-T Act, all they think about is the end of cash bail and that is just one segment of the overall plan,” said state Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat and attorney who was a lead negotiator on the omnibus law.
Cash bail won’t be abolished until 2023, and all police officers in Illinois have until 2025 to be equipped with body cameras.
Sims said the timeline was purposefully staggered to give state’s attorneys, courts and local police departments time to get up to speed on those changes.
“Change takes time … while you may not feel an immediate impact on day one, what you will see is a change in the culture,” Sims said. “We wanted to face these items head-on. We have for far too long legislated around the margins, for far too long we have not addressed these issues head-on.”
Come July 1, police will have the state-mandated duty to render aid and life-saving assistance like CPR if someone is injured, including instances in which it’s the result of the officer’s own use of force.
“They’re not required to be EMTs, they’re not trained to do that kind of stuff. But they are required not to just let them lie on the sidewalk and be in pain, but to provide whatever aid they can,” said Ed Wojcicki, director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “I would say in most cases, it was already in police departments’ policies to provide that kind of medical aid but now it’s in the law that they have to.”
Police will also have the legal obligation to intervene if another officer is using unauthorized force or a force exceeding what’s permissible.
“Which means if they see an officer doing something that everyone would understand is something that an officer should not be doing, now the officers have a legal obligation to intervene and put a stop to that. That was prompted obviously by the George Floyd case, but other stories that have emerged,” Wojcicki said.
Henceforth, police misconduct records must be kept on file permanently; they can be used under a new path to police decertification that’s also laid out in the law.
There are also limits that kick in on July 1 on what types of force police can use.
Police had previously been banned from using chokeholds, but there’s a revised definition in the new rules that clarifies while “peace officers” and “any other person acting under the color of law” cannot apply pressure that obstructs someone’s airway, it does not include headlocks in which “the only pressure applied is to the head.”
The law specifies that police cannot use “chemical agents or irritants” like tear gas or pepper spray for crowd control before issuing an order for the crowd to disperse, unless the time needed to give a warning or repeated warnings would put the officer at risk of death or severe injury.
Rubber bullets (referred to in the statute as “kinetic impact projectiles”) and tasers (described as “conducted electrical weapons”) cannot be targeted at someone’s head, neck, chest, groin or front pelvis.
While many of the changes have been in motion since the package passed in January at Black legislators’ urging and since Gov. J.B. Pritzker held a public bill signing (Public Act 101-0652) in February, the regulations on tasers changed just Friday.
On June 25, Pritzker – this time without any fanfare – signed what’s known as a “trailer bill” that’s supposed to make relatively minor fixes, clarifications, or changes to a bill passed previously.
The original law would have banned police from discharging a taser at someone’s back.
“Let’s look at it from a common sense standpoint. We don’t want people shooting somebody in the head with a taser, we don’t want them shooting it in the heart. We want to disable that person, so let’s shoot at a big mass, like the back,” Wojcicki said. “When we pointed out that that was the recommendation of the (taser) manufacturer, they (legislators) said ‘that makes good sense’ so they changed it.”
Sims said passing the trailer bill was making good on a promise to both law enforcement and to legislators, including some who stuck out their political necks by voting for the original plan despite widespread opposition from police groups.
“This is a conversation that we knew had to continue and would continue, and the trailer bill that we passed in House Bill 3443 is proof positive that we were going to stick to our word,” Sims said.
Wojcicki likewise said passage of the trailer bill was a sign of trust.
“So much of what ends up in the public discourse makes it look like us against them, the police against the legislators, the police against the Black Caucus, and so on. I want everybody to know that the leaders of the Black Caucus in both the House and the Senate worked with us for dozens, probably hundreds of hours,” he said.
Still, there’s division over matters of policing.
Vocal advocates want a full-scale defunding and abolition of the police; several Black legislators opposed the trailer bill, describing the changes as giving in to law enforcement and watering down the original law’s intent.
Meanwhile members of law enforcement cite Illinois’ new regulations as contributing to difficulties in recruiting new officers and a high rate of current police retiring.
Wojcicki is keeping watch for a report to be issued by a state task fore by Oct. 31, as some Democrats are pushing for Illinois to eliminate qualified immunity, a policy that protects officers from being held personally liable so long as they are not in clear violation of established law.
“For us, that would be almost a non-starter,” he said.
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