Police reform law doesn’t fill all accountability gaps

Police reform bill SB 1304

Infographic by Sarah Turbin

A police reform bill signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner this week implements a range of new requirements for police.

Illinois has become one of the first states to establish comprehensive rules for police body-worn cameras, one of a number of requirements in a police reform bill signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner this week.

Many police reform advocates support more widespread use of body-worn cameras, as video recordings of violent encounters between law enforcement and civilians have become bellwethers of national dialogue and activism around police abuse.  It’s unclear how accessible the recordings will be under the new state legislation.

The law comes at a time when efforts to improve police accountability have accelerated in Chicago. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois reached a “landmark agreement” with the city in which the police department will track all investigatory stops and protective pat-downs. A retired federal magistrate judge was selected to assess the data with the ACLU and issue public reports on findings about the legality of the city’s practices twice a year.

But some advocates say these actions don’t go far enough. The groups We Charge Genocide and Black Lives Matter Chicago released a public letter rejecting ACLU’s arrangement with the city, and are instead pushing for the yet unfiled STOP Act to pass City Council.  Those groups argue that, “The ACLU’s agreement provides for no more public disclosure than is required beyond the existing FOIA process.”

Contention between the various reform initiatives seem to center on how accessible data collected on the city’s stop and frisk practices would be – or, more precisely, who police would be accountable to under these reforms.

While Illinois will now require officers to collect more information on stops, the data will ultimately be reviewed by the Department of Transportation, who will report findings to the governor and legislators annually. In a similar vein, the state will also create a database of officers who have been discharged, dismissed or who have resigned while under investigation – but that database would only be accessible to law enforcement administrators.

Another major criticism of the state-level legislation is that it only requires officers to collect data on stops resulting in a detention or ticket.  In New York City, the collection and public availability of data on all stops and street interrogations was essential to assessing the legality of the city’s practice of “stop and frisk” and exposing racial disparities.  Reforms implemented since then have drastically reduced the number of stops in low-income neighborhoods of color, and the number of misdemeanor drug and weapon charges that commonly resulted from them.

It will be interesting to see how one component of the police reform bill plays out in Chicago: a mandate that investigations of all civilian deaths by police be conducted by at least two investigators who have never been employed at the law enforcement agency. Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority investigates all officer-involved shootings and includes former cops in its management. Moreover, out of hundreds of investigations to date, IPRA has only ruled one shooting by an officer to be unjustified.

Other key components of the state law:

  • Recordings from in-car police video cameras must be made available upon request to anyone depicted in the video.
  • Officers are required to issue a receipt to persons stopped after a frisk or search “unless impractical or impossible.”
  • Officers cannot use a chokehold in the performance of their duties unless deadly force is deemed justified under a definition in the criminal code.
  • Investigations of officers who are not charged for shooting civilians would be released publicly.