In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Springfield has essential work to do

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Springfield has essential work to do

Illinois lawmakers cannot afford to delay action in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sent up cries for change in all 50 states, with protestors demanding concrete action from state governments.

In Illinois that requires leadership from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon.

But if the past week is any indication, don’t get your hopes up.

“The more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away,” wrote former President Barack Obama this week.

There are specific bills in the Illinois General Assembly today to address deep inequities that long preceded Floyd’s death. They could go a long way toward preventing similar tragedies in Illinois.

But lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet at the capitol until after the November election – five months from now.

Debating, amending and voting on these proposals over the summer requires a special legislative session.

Black state Reps. Kam Buckner, Curtis Tarver and Lamont Robinson penned a letter to Madigan and Harmon calling for that special session. Pritzker can also call lawmakers back to Springfield – a power used by former Gov. Pat Quinn to address pension reform – but Pritzker’s spokesperson said he would not use it, instead deferring to the legislative leaders.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic requires an abundance of caution. But the General Assembly was able to meet safely in May to pass a budget, vote-by-mail reform and a bill allowing the sale of cocktails to go.

“We are in a state of emergency and we cannot wait until our November session to act,” Buckner said.

Policing and criminal justice reform is essential work. And members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus have a litany of bills they’d like to see put up for a vote. Just take three from state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago:

  • House Bill 2379 would limit the negligent hiring liability an employer could face for hiring an employee with a nonviolent, nonsexual criminal conviction in his or her past.
  • House Bill 2381 would protect whistleblowers in local government – including police departments – from retaliation.
  • House Bill 2571 would require all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.

State Rep. Maurice West, D-Chicago, released an eight-point plan, including a call to reform Pritzker’s $45 billion infrastructure package to be more inclusive of black workers.

For decades in Illinois, predominantly white contractors with big government checks have worked hand-in-hand with predominantly white labor unions to tamp down open competition on public projects. While 20% of a state agency’s project budget might be set-aside for black contractors, for example, strict project labor agreements championed by the governor and others mean few black workers make it onto job sites – even if a black-owned business gets the work. Those gigs are instead filled by union halls, based on clout and seniority.

Police unions, too, have dodged accountability.

Illinois’ broad scope of collective bargaining for government employees means police union heads can essentially write the law when it comes to proper discipline for misconduct. Just one example: Investigators in Chicago are not allowed to question police for 24 hours after a police-involved shooting. State lawmakers can fix this by establishing the rights of officers in state law, and restricting collective bargaining to wages and benefits only.

In Colorado, state lawmakers are now debating an end to a legal privilege for police officers called “qualified immunity.” This legal doctrine, which imposes a special set of technical barriers on victims seeking to hold government officials criminally liable, has been used to protect Idaho police who fired tear gas grenades into an innocent woman’s home, a prison guard accused of groping a female inmate, and the killing of innocent civilians by law enforcement.

These reforms and many others require attention, deliberation and action from state leaders now.

Not after a faraway election.

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