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Justice reform bill leaves out some important police accountability measures

Doctors can be sued for malpractice, lawyers can be disbarred, even your hairstylist can lose her license for failure to follow health standards. But police officers, who have powers of life and death, rarely face consequences. 

Chicago police
Chicago police stand guard as demonstrators protest outside the department’s 7th District station on August 11, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. The protest was held in response to the August 9 shooting and wounding of a 20-year-old man who allegedly fired at officers in the Englewood neighborhood.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last month, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a landmark bill on criminal justice reform, which was championed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and grassroots community groups across the state. This monumental policy package will take crucial steps in advancing racial justice in Illinois by enacting long overdue reforms to anti-Black systems of policing, and revising overly punitive sentencing laws.

But while the passage of the ILBC’s historic legislation has been rightly celebrated as a hard won victory, the final language included several glaring omissions, particularly around limiting the power of police unions, who have been the most steadfast and powerful voices against police accountability. If the state legislature is truly serious about reform, they must pursue additional legislation to plug these gaps.

Under fierce pressures from Chicago’s Fraternal Order of the Police and the largest public employee labor union in the nation, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the final bill dropped a powerful measure included in the ILBC’s original proposal that would have dismantled systems of police impunity in Illinois.

This provision, originally introduced by Representative Carol Ammons and the Chicago-based Workers Center for Racial Justice as HB 5830, would have prohibited measures in police union contracts that obstruct the open investigation of officer misconduct and thwart efforts to enact meaningful police reform. Many current police contracts, such as Chicago’s, include provisions that undermine fair investigations of misconduct by allowing accused officers time to review evidence, prepare before an investigation starts and limits the mechanisms for handing down discipline.

Under the false guise of protecting workers rights, AFSCME and the FOP pushed lawmakers to remove the right of Illinois residents to hold the police accountable through open investigations and discipline for officer wrongdoing. This has been the way police unions and, by extension, police forces have amassed power that allows for rampant systemic misconduct and office impunity.

Since the early 1960s, police unions have weaponized collective bargaining power to create a firewall for police misconduct. Unlike most union contracts that deal explicitly with wages and compensation, police collective bargaining agreements include provisions that shield individual officers from investigation into misconduct, provide impunity, and in some cases, allow law enforcement to destroy disciplinary records of individual officers. These contracts grant a level of protection enjoyed by no other profession. Doctors can be sued for malpractice, lawyers can be disbarred, even your hairstylist can lose her license for failure to follow health standards. But police officers, who have powers of life and death, rarely face consequences.

In reality, police contracts undermine public safety by allowing police misconduct to go unchecked, often until it is too late. Jason Van Dyke, the officer convicted in the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, had at least ten excessive force complaints against him at the time of the murder — none of which resulted in disciplinary action. Tracking by the Citizens Police Data suggests that Van Dyke had more complaints filed against him than 94 percent of other officers. Police contracts have allowed law enforcement to terrorize Black people with no recourse and no semblance of justice. Communities aren’t safe when anyone is above the law, including police.

As police unions have amassed power through their contracts, they have also been able to undermine any attempts at police reform through threats and fear mongering. Shortly after the introduction of ILBC’s reform package, the President of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs said that the provisions would “destroy law enforcement’s ability to keep communities safe.” A representative from the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police said the provisions would lead to “frivolous lawsuits” and was punishing good police.

Police unions routinely give political donations to candidates’ campaigns, making legislators politically beholden to them. By conservative estimates, Illinois police unions have given at least $376,410 to sitting Illinois state legislators. But police unions have also organized walkoffs and slowed their response to 911 calls to put pressure on political officials, a tactic so common it has its own nickname — the “blue flu.

What’s clear is that with all the praise for reform we heard from lawmakers, many of them still ultimately sided with the police unions. While the Black Caucus was clear-eyed about where the real problems lay, their allies were not willing to take the hard step of curbing the power of police unions. True reform will not be possible until that work is complete, and lawmakers who want to be celebrated as defending Black lives still have work to do.

Erika Maye is the deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color Of Change.

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