How Amendment 1 could give Illinois more arsonists as fire chiefs
An admitted arsonist was able to become a fire chief and part-time police officer thanks to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pardon. A proposed constitutional amendment could make it easier for violent felons to work in public safety – even without a pardon.
Allowing a convicted arsonist to become a fire chief and police officer defies common sense, but it happened in Illinois. And it could happen more, depending on what voters say about a proposed constitutional amendment.
In December, a formerly convicted arsonist was appointed fire chief of a department in Southern Illinois, making national headlines. Then he was named a police officer in a local village.
If Amendment 1 passes in November, governments across Illinois might find it impossible to stop violent felons from working public safety jobs.
Proponents of Amendment 1 have dubbed it the “Workers’ Rights Amendment,” advertising it as a protective measure to ensure employees throughout the state have a “fundamental right” to unionize and collectively bargain.
Analysis by the Illinois Policy Institute shows the language of the amendment would allow abuses of unionization and collective bargaining rights to nullify more than 350 existing state statutes. The amendment creates new threats for a wide variety of sectors, including policing, child care services and education. The impact of Amendment 1 would likely be felt by virtually all Illinoisans – including children.
Illinois law currently prevents people convicted of felonies from becoming law enforcement officers, county sheriffs, or other state or municipal employees.
While the idea of violent felons taking positions in schools or law enforcement agencies might seem far-fetched, real life cases of it happening show Amendment 1’s potential consequences. The Prairie Du Pont Fire Protection District gained national attention in December 2021 when Jerame Simmons, a formerly convicted arsonist, became the department’s acting fire chief.
Recent news showed Simmons, who pleaded guilty to arson in 1999 after setting a fire in his high school’s basement and in an abandoned house, also became a part-time police officer. Given this position, he can make arrests, carry a gun and use lethal force if necessary.
Although his felony conviction prohibited him from employment in the public safety sector, a pardon by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in May 2021 cleared the restrictions put on Simmons, allowing him to become the acting fire chief and then a part-time police officer. Even though he was then legally eligible for the fire chief position, 10 of the department’s 13 firefighters resigned in protest.
Simmons held a controversial record aside from the arson conviction. He pleaded guilty to a 2006 charge of leaving the scene of an accident, pleaded guilty to a 2009 charge of obstructing a police officer and he pleaded guilty to a 2016 charge of disorderly conduct. He had four other charges dismissed.
If a pardon can allow an arsonist to become a fire chief and a cop, Amendment 1 could empower union bosses to help their favored members nullify employment restrictions on public safety positions. Unions could force a collective bargaining agreement that eliminates licensure or other restrictions imposed on public positions, with elected leaders restrained from opposing them by constitutional protection of union powers.
While there are certain mechanisms in existing law that may prevent cases like this, Amendment 1 would put lawmakers and local governments under greater union control. Putting Amendment 1 in the state constitution would let unions void common-sense laws, such as those that stop an arsonist from becoming a fire chief.