Release of the George Floyd video intensified the nationwide movement to reform the police.
As protests grew, cities and states introduced policing bills.
From coast to coast, lawmakers approved various measures concerning chokeholds, use of chemical spray gas, search warrants and accountability for officers.
Nusrat Choudhury is the legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. She says while numerous responded to the Floyd video by enacting meaningful police reform, Chicago has been stuck in neutral.
“Across the country we are in the midst of a racial justice reckoning with policing at the center,” Choudhury said. “Unfortunately we see in Chicago that community engagement is a fiction so far.”
This past winter, the Illinois legislature approved, and Governor Pritzker signed into a law, an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.
Ending cash bail was the centerpiece of the bill and it paired with various police reform measures.
The law requires every police officer in Illinois be equipped with a body camera, increases certification for officers and allows for anonymous complaints against police.
But in Chicago, there are roadblocks to reform. Illinois labor law makes police union contracts the final say. In Chicago, the police contract prohibits anonymous complaints.
“That requirement has been a barrier to holding police accountable” Choudhury said.
It’s not that activists aren’t trying.
Some, like 20th Ward Alderman Janette Taylor, want to defund the police.
“We spend 40 percent of the city’s budget on the police and we do not feel any safer,” she said. “We never had this many problems in the ‘80s or ‘90s when it comes to policing. You didn’t have this much crime but that’s because you had afterschool programs. You had social centers. You had summer youth employment.”
Alderman Roderick Sawyer of the 6th Ward is pushing reforms, although he stops short of advocating defunding the police.
“We need to reimagine how we fund the police and not have police do non-police functions,” he said. “I get that people are frustrated and I understand the frustration but I don’t think the answer is to just cut off all funding for police activity.”
Since 2018, CPD has been trying to achieve court mandated reforms. And in recent months, the department has taken steps to revise its search warrant and foot chase policies.
But grassroots organizations want more. Activists are pushing for a citizen-led commission that would have final authority on matters of police policy.
“Right now we’re stuck. I cannot get an ordinance out of the Public Safety Committee,” Sawyer said. “I think the mayor is making attempts to introduce her own version of what the accountability looks like. … Under this administration there was a commitment that in the first 100 days we would pass police reform, police accountability. And going two years in now and we still haven’t passed it.”
The biggest obstacle to reform?
“The mayor and police are the biggest obstacles to reform,” Taylor said.
Not everyone in City Council wants a police overhaul.
“These lefty looneys don’t have a clue,” Alderman Nick Sposato said.
Sposato said the added police scrutiny is handcuffing officers. And he’s worried about the number of police choosing to retire.
“You see what happens. They can’t do anything right. They’re wrong if they shoot, they’re wrong if they if they don’t shoot,” he said. “I don’t think they feel the least bit supported.”
Chuck Welxer is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that develops best practices for police. He warns there may be unintended consequences of civilian oversight.
“Intuitively you think we need civilian oversight and in some cases that makes sense but the irony is if you look at civilian review boards they tend to be not as experienced as police chiefs themselves and so they wind up being more lenient,” he said.
Police reform in America remains unsettled. But Black Lives Matter can point to gains scaling back the force officers can use on civilians.
“What’s happening is the American people are seeing policing; the good, the bad and the ugly, to be honest. And some parts of what they’re seeing they’re questioning,” Wexler said.
Last summer, the U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act aimed at addressing misconduct, excessive force and racial bias. In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on compromise. But issues such as qualified immunity, which protects police from civil litigation, are proving tricky to navigate. In Illinois, the legislature so far has punted on qualified immunity.