Just before Christmas, state Sen. Kim Lightford (D-Maywood) was with her husband when something happened that she said felt like it was right out of a movie.
They were carjacked by four men, wielding guns.
“My husband told me to run. I was terrified. I believe that I stopped breathing. I just thought that with every step that I would be hit with a bullet in my back,” Lightford said. “And I just knew they’d kill my husband. There was a lot of shooting going on, so I just thought he’d be gone.”
No one was physically hurt and Lightford says as far as she knows, her assailants haven’t been caught.
It’s scenarios like this that have crime at the top of the agenda for both voters and elected officials.
In their final days of the annual spring session, members of Illinois’ General Assembly approved a series of bills targeting public safety.
Carjackers don’t heed municipal boundaries, and one measure (HB3699) allows law enforcement agencies to cooperate across jurisdictions.
“Use the resources of bigger departments like the (Cook County) sheriff’s, the state police, and hopefully identify some of the underlying organization that’s going on, hopefully do a better job of effectuating arrests,” said state Sen. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago).
Other measures are meant to help retain (HB1568), recruit (HB3863) and support police (HB1571).
State Sen. Mike Hastings (D-Frankfort) said it’s about a three-pronged approach of increased law enforcement presence, reliance on technology and cooperation.
“We’re looking at 150% more state troopers on the street, and we need to do it during peak criminal hours,” he said. “In terms of technology, we’ve expanded access to cameras on expressways.”
Another bill (HB3772) waives any speeding tickets or other traffic fines after a victim’s car is stolen.
Republicans had been pushing for steeper penalties.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin says his niece is traumatized after being carjacked in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.
“She’s going to ask ‘What have you guys done with this horrible, horrible crime wave that’s coming to the state of Illinois? I’m going to say that the majority party, what they’ve done is they’ve created a council and they’re going to wave your parking and traffic fees. Congratulations, folks,” Durkin said.
According to the Cook County sheriff’s office, there were more than 2,000 carjackings in Cook County last year, more than in New York City and Los Angeles combined.
Sheriff Tom Dart says one complication with catching culprits is an inability to track cars, even those equipped with technology that should make it easy.
He lobbied for a bill (SB4205/HB5744) that would create a hotline law enforcement officers could call, so auto makers could facilitate tracking immediately after a crime
“This is doable. I really would have a hard time with the sympathy party for a lot of these (auto) manufacturers. They make billions of dollars. Are you trying to tell me they can’t set up a 24-hour hotline? Literally that’s what’s we’re looking for,” Dart said at a press conference last week.
Evidently, it was not politically feasible; that legislation did not advance.
Lawmakers did pass a measure (HB4383) making so-called “ghost guns,” or guns and gun kits without serial numbers, illegal.
The bill immediately prohibits the sale of unserialized parts that can be turned into guns.
Anyone with an older gun or hobby-made gun that is without a serial number has six months to take it to a licensed firearms dealer to get one.
State Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Moline) said the measure wrongly will penalize himself and other legal firearm owners the same as it will criminals who intentionally scratch a serial number from a gun to prevent it from being traced.
Sponsoring state Sen. Jackie Collins (D-Chicago) said it’s hypocritical for the same critics calling for tougher actions against carjackers and shoplifters to promote the continued use of ghost guns used by criminals to evade police.
“We see individuals who are domestic violence abusers or mentally ill, or just the basic criminal that you’re trying to stop with the carjacking — they have these ghost guns and then the investigators and the police or law enforcement is not able to the issue of the crime because they’re untraceable,” Collins said.
Another controversial measure (HB1091) aims to crack down on smash-and-grab robberies. It creates a new crime, organized retail theft.
“What we’re trying to do with the bill is to get to the big fish. We don’t want to get the little fish. We’re not interested in little shoplifting and things like that. We want to get to the enterprise,” said Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton (D-Western Springs), the bill’s sponsor.
A previous version of the proposal would have penalized anyone who took part in a planned group theft of a store with organized retail theft. After negotiations, the measure is limited to penalizing the leaders or organizers.
Republicans say the measure has good elements, like giving the state attorney general the ability to convene a grand jury to go over those who commit organized retail theft.
Under the measure, third-party online vendors must require sellers to share information as a means of cutting off the market for re-selling stolen goods.
Glowiak Hilton said limiting demand will lead to less crime.
But state Sen. Steve McClure (R-Springfield) said in terms of punishing those who actually rob stories, the measure has no real teeth.
“This is what we’ve come up with? Our stores in this state … most of which have not recovered from the pandemic, and they are being targeted in a way that we have not seen before by retail thefts,” McClure said. “And what do you do? You just change the words around and charge them with the exact same thing. Well guess what’s going to happen? Nothing.”
Republicans have repeatedly called for the repeal of a major criminal justice law (HB3653) passed in 2021, the SAFE-T Act, which among other changes allows for the decertification of police, eliminates cash bail and changes the crimes for which someone can be detained pre-trial.
Republicans say with it, and a lack of meaningful action in the just-adjourned session, Democrats are being too soft on crime.
Negotiations over what state Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago) called “refinements” to the SAFE-T Act are ongoing.
Slaughter said Republicans are politicizing the issue of crime, and blaming it on the SAFE-T Act even before major pieces, such as the end of cash bail, have taken effect.
“You don’t care about public safety. If you did, you would know in the Black community it’s been a state of emergency for a really long time now. But as long as crime and violence is contained in the hood, it was OK. As long as Black folks terrorized other people of color it was fine. But now, but now, Chiraq is in your communities and now it’s a state of emergency,” Slaughter said. “We can smell it. It’s a bad stench of racism coming from that side of the aisle.”
His words, in the final wee hours of session, are a preview of the debate on crime and public safety that will likely be central in this year’s election.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky