This story was co-published with WBEZ.
A bill aimed at imposing new oversight on police who shoot people appears poised to sail through the Illinois legislature, but the measure would leave it to sometimes-troubled local departments to set their own rules.
The measure was sponsored by state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago in the wake of an investigation by the Better Government Association and WBEZ. The probe found dozens of questionable shootings in suburban Cook County that never led to discipline, even when victims were unarmed, innocent bystanders or even fellow police officers.
The bill would require all police shootings in Illinois to undergo an internal review for policy violations or procedural mistakes, a practice routine at larger departments such as Chicago’s but ignored at most smaller suburban departments, a key finding of the BGA/WBEZ series.
After passing the Senate last month 49-0, the Raoul bill is expected to speed through the House without opposition from a powerful police lobby well-known for pushing back hard on new mandates from Springfield.
A likely reason for the restraint is that the bill does not demand independent or civilian oversight, sets forth no parameters for what should be included in the policy reviews, provides no funding to conduct the investigations and leaves it to local police chiefs to decide how to conduct them.
Some of those chiefs have long failed to hold their own officers accountable after questionable shootings, the BGA/WBEZ investigation showed.
Policing experts say the measure is a small step in the right direction, but also contend civilian or outside oversight is preferable.
“This raises the age-old issue of who should be policing the police, who should be investigating the police?” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who co-authored a critical report on police misconduct in Chicago.
Raoul, a Chicago Democrat running for attorney general against Republican lawyer Erika Harold, said he is open to more sweeping oversight of questionable police shootings. But he cautioned that his years as a legislator have taught him that small steps are the only way to enact police reform.
“Everything that I have done in law enforcement and criminal justice reform, I’ve done incrementally,” he said. “I’m open to seeing what would happen with it in whatever capacity I will be serving in the future. I anticipate having a voice in this, and using it.”
Raoul also acknowledged some critics might conclude his bill “doesn’t go far enough.”
“If those critics have the revenue source to fund the investigative agency that could police every police department, I’m all ears,” he said. “Things aren’t as easy as flipping a switch.”
Raoul, who along with other members of the legislative black caucus has long advocated for increased police accountability, said he drafted the measure with input from James Kruger, the immediate past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which supports the bill.
Contacted by telephone, Kruger said some of his own members don’t think the bill goes far enough.
“I think there’s a certain number of our colleagues in the state who are still of the mind that we could even go a little further in reference to all use-of-force investigations and making sure that there is a proper review,” said Kruger, who is also the chief of the suburban Oak Brook Police Department. “That’s probably another day.”
The BGA/WBEZ investigation found 113 shootings by police officers in suburban Cook County since 2005 of which only a handful were reviewed for policy violations or procedural mistakes. The report cited dozens of cases of errant shootings.
No officer involved in those shootings was ever disciplined, retrained or fired, the investigation found. Raoul has called the situation “outrageous.”
One co-sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said mandating independent reviews of police shootings statewide would be a “heavier haul and longer lift,” but also called the bill a good first step.
Approved by the Senate on April 26 without opposition, the measure requires police agencies to adopt written policies governing reviews of police shootings. It also requires an investigation of all police-involved shootings, whether or not anyone was killed or injured.
The bill is an effort to fix a loophole in a 2015 police reform bill, also sponsored by Raoul and other members of the legislative black caucus. That measure mandated independent criminal investigations of all police shootings in the state.
But such investigations, conducted mostly by the Illinois State Police, do not look at broader questions of whether police who shoot made procedural mistakes or violated any department directives or policies.
“The idea that a community would say that they can afford to hire people and send them out with guns and with Tasers and give them the authority to use force against the public but then don’t have the resources to ensure that they’re properly trained and supervised, that’s a serious problem,” said Karen Sheley, director of the Police Practices Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “They may want to rethink their priorities.”
David Bradford, the executive director of Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, said most larger and well-funded police agencies have police shooting review policies on the books. The Raoul bill, Bradford said, is aimed at bringing smaller departments into line but he recommended lawmakers adopt statewide standards for the investigations.
Kruger suggested the chiefs association would likely pull its support for the legislation if it mandated that shooting reviews be conducted outside the purview of a local police chief.
The bill also calls for all agencies to adopt policies requiring internal reviews of all police shootings, with the policies being available for inspection under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
It does not, however, require release of information about the investigations themselves. Hutchinson said current open records law requires such disclosure only in cases where violations are found and officers disciplined.
The legislation also makes no reference to how internal investigations would be funded, although the bill’s House co-sponsor, state Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, said he doesn’t believe the internal reviews mandated by this bill will “cost the departments much.”
The department in downstate Champaign, which internally investigated its past three police shooting cases, estimated an investigation takes between 80 to 160 hours spread out over months, and required at least two members of command staff to be trained in the investigative process.
Cabello, who is also a Rockford police officer, said he wanted to make sure “all law enforcement was OK with it,” before supporting the legislation.