With law enforcement and civil rights groups at odds over qualified immunity protections in Illinois, the McLean County Board Justice Committee on Tuesday was set to consider a resolution to reinforce the police position.
Qualified immunity shields police officers from civil lawsuits where plaintiffs claim their rights were violated. Those protections have attracted scrutiny in the wake of high-profile episodes of police violence. Initially, state lawmakers sought to end qualified immunity as part of a broader criminal justice reform package. But that was stripped from the package before it passed. Instead, a commission will be created to study the issue.
Opponents of such changes argue they limit officers’ ability to make split-second decisions in volatile circumstances, for fear of backlash. Proponents say it’s a necessary step to bring police abuse to light and hold officers accountable.
Dr. Miltonette Craig, an Illinois State University criminologist and member of Not In Our Town, said changes would ensure officers think before they act.
“We want to show our officers that we’re behind them and we support them in the decisions that they make, but that shouldn’t be a blanket statement because sometimes law enforcement officers’ decisions are wrong,” Craig said. “We have to recognize that and still be able to have them be held accountable for those wrong decisions.”
Often, Craig said police misconduct is written off as the actions of “a few bad apples.” She said if that is the case, rolling back qualified immunity shouldn’t be a threat, but rather an opportunity to uproot bad actors.
"Not agreeing with that makes me feel as if they might realize it is an institutional problem, as opposed to a 'bad apple' problem,” Craig said.
Who proposed the resolution
McLean County Board Justice Committee Chair Chuck Erickson told committee members via email that the resolution is meant to be a morale booster and sign of support for law enforcement who have expressed serious concern over the criminal justice reform package.
"A public showing of support by the McLean County Board and a statement objecting to further changes to the protections provided by the Illinois Qualified Immunity Act will go a long way toward supporting the sheriff's department and raising the morale of the department," Erickson wrote in a memo introducing the resolution.
The resolution, if approved, would urge "Governor Pritzker and the General Assembly of the State of Illinois to reject any attempt to further limit or constrain the protections granted by the Illinois Qualified Immunity Act."
Linda Foster, president of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, said a blanket condemnation of the criminal justice reforms harms police-community relations.
“We know that we need law enforcement. We are not against law enforcement,” Foster said. “We want to make sure everybody is consistent with reducing opportunities to cause a group of people to feel as though they are less than—those that are underrepresented, those that are disproportionately targeted.”
NAACP Vice President Dr. Carla Campbell-Jackson said it’s a matter of making sure all parties are united in their effort of making Bloomington-Normal a safer place to live for residents and officers.
“We think that one way to eliminate divisiveness is to make sure the messages being sent align with the right thing to do."
The Justice Committee meets at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday. Read the resolution here.
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