Lawmakers Seek Broader Reviews of Suburban Police Shootings
This story was co-published with WBEZ.
Leading black lawmakers in Springfield say they will press to close a loophole in state law that allows suburban police to avoid administrative scrutiny after shooting people, an omission highlighted in a recent Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation.
“It’s outrageous,” said state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, responding to the probe’s findings that not a single officer was disciplined, re-trained or fired after 113 suburban police shootings over 13 years. What’s more, no reviews for policy violations or mistakes were conducted in the vast majority of those shootings.
“Absolutely a review should take place,” said Raoul, who is also the Democratic candidate for attorney general. “It’s worth me utilizing my energy towards doing something about it.”
Those sentiments were echoed by state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, who heads the Senate black caucus and called the BGA/WBEZ findings “heartbreaking.”
“We’ve got to add this to our list of things we have to work on,” she said.
Both senators pushed hard in 2015 for police reforms in the aftermath of high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men in several cities, including Chicago. That 2015 reform package mandated independent reviews to determine whether officers committed a crime, but not for policy violations — an apparent oversight that ignored what many police experts argue is a fundamental police function.
“It is disturbing to me,” Raoul said during a recent interview in his Hyde Park office. “There is a presumption that police departments are doing what people expect police departments to do… So suffice it to say I am absolutely frustrated. I am absolutely frustrated as somebody who has spent hours and hours and days on law enforcement reform policy.”
Meanwhile, a proposal before the Cook County Board of Commissioners to assign the county sheriff’s office to help investigate policy violations at small departments has languished unheard for months, stalled in the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
Perhaps one reason is the powerful police lobby, which has privately girded for a fight over the issue in Springfield, according to emails obtained by the BGA under the Freedom of Information Act.
“It’s stories like this that are going to feed into the narrative that we can’t do it ourselves and we need civilians to watch over us because we can’t be trusted,” wrote James Kruger, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, in one email to fellow police chiefs following the WBEZ/BGA report.
“While I would agree we should let our members run their own agencies, I'm sorry to say we are going to be dragged down to the lowest common denominator,” Kruger wrote as part of an exchange of emails discussing how to address the issue before state lawmakers.
The subject line on the email string: “BGA/WBEZ series on police shootings in the suburbs.”
Following a recent meeting with Raoul to discuss the issue, Kruger said his group might support legislation to mandate procedural reviews of all use of force, including police shootings. But he suggested the organization’s support would wane unless the policy reviews were conducted under the purview of each department’s chief.
“I think it’s going to be very constructive potentially (to) have this legislation so that way there’s the utmost trust and confidence in law enforcement’s actions,” said Kruger, who is also the police chief in Oak Brook.
At deadline, no proposed legislation to address the issue had been filed. Raoul and other members of the 30-member legislative black caucus have long been at the center of efforts to curb police abuses and enhance police oversight, with limited success.
Two other members of the caucus — state Rep. Christian Mitchell and state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, both Democrats from Chicago — deferred to Raoul to comment. Messages left with other members of the black caucus were not returned.
The four-part BGA/WBEZ investigation identified dozens of questionable police shootings — most in predominantly black suburbs. They included 20 police shootings in which officers fired at moving cars, 30 in which suspects were unarmed and another half-dozen in which police shot each other or innocent bystanders.
National experts told the BGA and WBEZ that police often violated their own policies and best practices by ramping up confrontations instead of de-escalating them, endangered innocent bystanders and even tampered with evidence after a shooting.
Still, the investigation found that in 113 shootings, not a single suburban officer was disciplined, re-trained or fired after pulling the trigger. That’s because of an omission in the 2015 police reform bill — sponsored by Raoul and pushed by the black caucus — that mandated police shootings throughout the state undergo an independent investigation.
Many suburban police chiefs and municipal officials interviewed said they assumed the investigations, which are performed by the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force, also included reviews of whether officers violated policies, procedures and best practices. But the state police only look for criminal violations, a much higher standard than reviewing for mistakes, errant police tactics or violations of policy, all of which are far more common problems found in some police shootings, according to experts.
Raoul and other lawmakers interviewed for this report said they were surprised to learn such a fundamental police function as policy reviews after shootings was routinely ignored throughout suburban Cook County.
One example detailed in the BGA/WBEZ reports happened in south suburban Glenwood, where a retiree was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet following an eight-hour standoff with police in which he pleaded 32 times for the SWAT team surrounding his house to leave.
“When you are in a little place like Glenwood, did anyone care, did anyone hear about it, did we know?” Hutchinson said. “All the oxygen gets sucked out of the room to the level of information that gets disseminated whenever anything happens in the city of Chicago.”
Chicago has its own bureaucracy in which its primary purpose is to conduct policy reviews in police shootings. Suburban police chiefs argued they lack the resources in cash-strapped towns to assign officers to do policy reviews.
Police experts interviewed called that an unacceptable excuse.
“That’s just a horrible way to run a police department, not to understand what your officers are doing or why they’re doing it, and not to critique them in their high-risk activities,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and a leading researcher on police use of force.
“If they don’t, and they don’t learn, it’s going to come back at them again,” he said. “Every time they shoot a gun, the department, the chief, is responsible for explaining each bullet, why it was fired.”
Raoul said that while it is obvious police shootings should be investigated for mistakes, legislative efforts to enact sweeping police accountability reforms are often frustrated by a partisan climate, a strong police lobby and a lack of political will. For instance, he and other lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully for years to mandate all police officers be licensed by the state.
“It should be the responsibility of every single legislator, every single individual and every single community to be outraged,” he said. “The black caucus by itself, guess what, is 30 people. It’s 20 people in one chamber, 10 in another. You can’t pass a bill with that. It’s got to be the responsibility of everybody.”
Raoul is locked in a battle to replace Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is not seeking re-election after 15 years in the post. Raoul’s Republican opponent is Erika Harold, an attorney in downstate Champaign.
In an earlier interview with WBEZ, Harold said she would push the General Assembly to amend the 2015 law to expand the scope of police shooting investigations and create a special agency similar to Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, perhaps on a countywide level, to investigate police shootings in the suburbs.
In Champaign, where Harold practices law, the police department routinely conducts internal policy reviews of police shootings, one of only a few smaller departments in Illinois the BGA found that do so.
Champaign Police Department internally investigated each of the city’s three police shootings since 2009, and as a result two police officers were suspended for their mistakes, records show. Command staff review each incident for policy violations and to identify areas where officers need to be retrained, said Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb.
“It helps us to be defensible, to show the public what happened and to lay it out,” Cobb said. “We have seen multiple things come out of this that were beneficial because we took the time to examine these cases.”
Back in suburban Cook County, such examinations are almost non-existent.
Towns such as Calumet City, Dolton, Harvey, Markham, Riverdale and Maywood together accounted for about 40 percent of all police shootings, despite representing less than six percent of a suburban Cook County’s population of 2.5 million. The BGA found that although many of these police shootings in these municipalities raised serious questions, none of them were given the comprehensive procedural review that occurs in Chicago and Champaign.
Following the WBEZ/BGA reports, police chiefs strategized in a flurry of emails to fellow members of the police chiefs lobbying group about how to fend off any calls to action in the state legislature. Those communications were among hundreds of emails turned over to the BGA under a Freedom of Information request.
Des Plaines Police Chief Bill Kushner noted in one Jan. 9 email to his counterparts that the legislature is “decidedly anti police.”
“If we are not prepared to discuss this article and the ‘issues’ it raises, we are in for a long fight about use of force policies,” Kushner wrote.
Steven Stetler, a vice president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, suggested neutrality on the issue for fear that police peers might “turn against us.”
“What can we possibly say concerning their article that will not offend or piss off other departments?” Stetler wrote. “I don’t think we should defend or criticize, but stay real neutral and put everything on the individual department knowing they will handle each incident professionally and with transparency.”
One Des Plaines Police Commander, Scott Moreth, sarcastically offered some insight into how some police professionals feel about legislative mandates in general.
In an email blasted to colleagues, Cmdr. Moreth suggested a new “investigative piece on how our police turds are ruining the plumbing in the building. … Maybe a lawmaker down in Springfield can mandate Metamucil supplements for all sworn officers next!”
J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic nominee for governor, pledged to organize task forces to examine the needs of local residents before offering a legislative fix.
“We can’t go for a one-size-fits-all solution, but we need to make sure that justice is being done and that in each of those circumstances, the communities are engaged in the process of the investigation,” Pritzker said. “These are not just suburban communities around Cook County but communities throughout the state where this is a major issue.”
Calls to both Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office and his re-election campaign were not returned.
Meanwhile, community leaders and police experts argue the status quo is unacceptable.
Rev. Lance Davis, pastor of New Zion Covenant Church in Dolton, said state law should mandate strict reviews for every situation where a police officer uses deadly force to pierce the “blue code” of police secrecy.
“There’s a loophole, but who enforces the loophole?” Davis said. “It’s the system that benefits off the demise of these folks.”
Wesley Skogan, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research and a prolific author on criminal justice, agreed.
“If you rely on these agencies themselves, it isn’t going to happen,” Skogan said. “In the policing world, small is dangerous. It’s the small places where, relatively, most of the nasty things happen.”