Legislation aims to increase police accountability

Protesters in Chicago react last year after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American man.

Photo by William Camargo

Protesters in Chicago react last year after a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American man.

In the statehouse, lawmakers are fleshing out several bills aimed at improving police accountability, spurred in part by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year.

The measures are in the Illinois House Judiciary-Criminal Committee, along with a bill introduced in January by Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago), a committee member.

Mitchell’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Litesa Wallace (D-Rockford), addresses a key issue in the Brown and Garner cases: a lack of public trust in the grand juries that decided not to indict the police officers who killed the men.  In Chicago and across the country, most investigations into police-involved deaths have let cops off scot-free.

The bill would require state and local law enforcement agencies to have police-involved deaths investigated by at least two independent investigators. The investigators would prepare a public report of their findings and recommend whether the State’s Attorney should bring charges against an officer, though the State’s Attorney would make the final call.

“What we don’t want is law enforcement agencies doing their own reviews internally,” Mitchell said. “What this says is, separate of whatever you do internally, there needs to be closure for the community.”

It hasn’t been determined what authority would establish and staff independent investigations or if they would be under civilian control, Mitchell’s office said. It’s also unclear how Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority fits into the picture.

IPRA, whose leadership includes several former law enforcement officials, investigates officer misconduct, recommends discipline to the superintendent of police and can refer cases for potential criminal prosecution. Critics of the agency have questioned whether it’s independent only in name. Of the more than 100 fatal police shootings in Chicago since 2007, none was found unjustified by the authority, according to an investigation by WBEZ.

The last time a Chicago cop was convicted of killing a civilian was in 1995. And when police officer Dante Servin was charged in 2013 for shooting Rekia Boyd to death — it was the first time since 1995 that a Chicago police officer faced charges for killing someone.

A lack of trust in and fear of the police has festered inside communities of color since long before the high-profile deaths of Brown and Garner, Mitchell said.

“Some of these measures are based on the need to rebuild that trust,” he said.

Mitchell’s bill is joined in the House by three police-related bills also introduced in January by Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago).

One would create a task force to study racial disparities in police traffic stops and take testimony from victims. Another bill would bolster racial and cultural sensitivity training for state and local police officers.

And in light of the chokehold death of Garner by a New York cop, Flowers also introduced a measure that would restrict the use of chokeholds by police and private security contractors. Some Chicago aldermen have proposed a ban on chokeholds, which are already not allowed per Chicago Police Department policies.

“There are too many innocent people that have been incarcerated,” Flowers said, “and there are too many people who have died at the hands of police officers, justified or not justified.”