By STATE REP. CHRISTIAN MITCHELL (D-26)
Most of the recent news coverage of Springfield has focused on the budget firestorm between Governor Rauner and the Democrats – and rightfully so. Passing a fair budget that protects our state, invests in our future and meets our financial obligations is the most important job of the legislature. But I want to highlight one specific piece of legislation that I was particularly proud to work on.
Just before the May 31 deadline, the General Assembly passed a first-in-the-nation policing reform package that is an important step forward in the efforts to create safer neighborhoods and stronger relations between our law enforcement agencies and the communities that they serve.
Part of this package was a measure that I introduced at the beginning of the year that would require an independent investigation of any police-involved death. That means that if a police officer’s actions result in the death of an individual, an outside agency would conduct a thorough and independent investigation on the matter.
The findings of that investigation would be shared with and reviewed by the local State’s Attorney who would then determine whether or not to file charges against the officer involved in the death. If the State’s Attorney decides not to prosecute the officer for whatever reason, the findings of the independent investigation would then be released in a report to the public.
Now, why is that last piece so important? By adding a layer of public transparency into this process, there is now significant public pressure on the local State’s Attorney to be objective in his or her decision to prosecute an officer, if there is in fact evidence of excessive force or some other form of misconduct that led to the death of an individual.
The premise of this measure is simple. If an American Airlines plane were to be involved in an accident that resulted in the death of its passengers, we wouldn’t simply let American Airlines have its own people investigate their pilots. We would bring in the NTSB as an independent body to determine exactly what took place.
But this bill is about more than just correcting conflicts of interest in our legal system. It’s about giving closure to communities following a tragedy. Families need and deserve to know that justice was served, and the process is consistent.
And it’s also about the deeper struggle of rebuilding trust between communities —particularly communities of color — and local law enforcement. The majority of police officers do their jobs well and with the level of integrity necessary to equally and fairly uphold our laws, and deserve our respect, trust and admiration. We need to make sure, however, that one or two bad apples don’t erode trust in the system — so that our friends and neighbors work cooperatively and respectfully with law enforcement to solve crimes. This bill is about creating a level of transparency that is conducive to restoring confidence between our officers and our communities.
It’s my belief that this bill will move us in the direction of stronger accountability for those entrusted to uphold our laws as well as rebuilding trust between communities and local law enforcement. Only together can we build safe, livable neighborhoods for every citizen.