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Criminal justice reform is really about safety for people and police

Law enforcement organizations are complaining about a new police reform bill, saying it “hands the keys to criminals.” They couldn’t be more wrong.

Chicago Police Department Headquarters
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

For some time, we have recognized that the lack of trust between people and police is an obstacle to reducing gun violence, which last year took the lives of nearly 800 Chicagoans and injured thousands of others.

Today, a bill awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature holds out the promise of greater safety in our city precisely because the legislation can build trust between police and the people they serve.

House Bill 3653, which was sponsored by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, will go a long way toward making both people and police safer. For people who have experienced abusive policing practices, the law prohibits police from using chokeholds and requires body cameras, which already are required in Chicago but not statewide.

The law also ends cash bail, which destabilizes low-income families when wage-earners are detained because they can’t come up with bail money. For crime victims and survivors, it includes money to help recover. And instead of treating substance abuse as a crime, the law provides for more treatment. It also requires police to get and keep a state license so rogue officers who get fired cannot easily be rehired by another police department.

For police, the law protects them from unjust lawsuits and provides more training. It also focuses on the mental health and wellness of police officers, which is a growing concern. Today, stress, depression, substance abuse, spousal abuse and suicides are up among police officers. Attrition rates are rising, and fewer new recruits are signing up.

The fact is, the job is becoming impossible; and with so many guns on the street, it’s more dangerous than ever. This legislation lays a foundation for reimagining public safety and shifting responsibility for addressing many community problems from the police to social service providers, counselors and outreach workers.

For too long, we have addressed crime with only one tool: enforcement. Instead of addressing root causes like mental illness, drug abuse, economic injustice and educational inequity, we just keep hiring more police, saddling them with more and more duties, and sending more and more people to prison.

A drug user needs treatment, not arrest. In most cases, domestic disputes need counselors, not cops. A homeless person needs a roof overhead, not a jail cell. And cops need to spend more time learning how to de-escalate tense situations than learning how to fire their gun.

Above all, the men and women who are caught up in gun violence — either as victims or as shooters — need things that police can never provide. It starts with a paycheck. They need to eat, pay rent and take care of their families; and if we don’t give them a path into the legal economy, they will remain in the illegal economy — if only to survive.

They need counseling to deal with the trauma they have experienced and life coaches to deal with the everyday pressures in their lives. They need education and job-training.

For most of them, they don’t need a second chance — they need a first chance. They need an opportunity they never had to live without fear and unaddressed trauma and pursue safe, meaningful and rewarding lives.

If we stop asking police to solve all of society’s problems, we can reasonably expect them to focus on serious crime and build trust with their communities. The absence of trust is a big reason Chicago has such a low clearance rate for violent crimes and such a high murder rate. People don’t trust the police and won’t cooperate with investigators. Today in Chicago, about 50 percent of fatal shootings and 95 percent of non-fatal shootings remain unsolved. In the absence of true justice, people seek street justice.

Right now, several law enforcement organizations are complaining about this new legislation, with one saying it “hands the keys to criminals.” They couldn’t be more wrong. This law will protect police and people. It will make us all safer.

Trust does not automatically come with a gun and a badge. It has to be earned and re-earned every day. High-profile police shootings and videos showing abusive policing have irreversibly changed the dynamics in law enforcement. The code of silence has finally met its match with video phones. This law is the response. Police should embrace it.

Arne Duncan is the founder of Chicago CRED, an organization working to reduce violence, and a managing partner of Emerson Collective.

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