Policing in Chicago Will Suffer After the SAFE-T Act

November 16, 2022

The new law is as dangerous as criminals themselves

While most of Chicago flutters with apprehension at the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act (SAFE-T Act) taking effect on January 1, 2023, much of the agita surrounding the new law is found in the Pretrial Fairness Act. A controversial measure which abolishes cash bail, the provision, its supporters contend, will move the State of Illinois toward a safer, just, and fair society. Critics, however, insist the Pretrial Fairness Act is an arrangement for détente with criminals and will encourage lawlessness.

In response to conservatives’ drumbeat the law will allow criminals to blithely maraud, Democrats have predictably responded by asserting opposition to the SAFE-T Act is rooted in racism, part of a campaign of irresponsible hysteria or both. Yet for all the law’s determined defenders, Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly (IGA) and Governor J.B. Pritzker have performed a heel turn, admitting the legislation’s imperfections, and offering assurances the new law will be subjected to detailed scrutiny and perhaps a fine-tuning before going into effect at the start of the new year.

While most of the concern and criticism over the new law tends to concentrate on the Pretrial Fairness Act, separate sections of the legislation are certain to place limitations on law enforcement. So now is a good time to take stock of the SAFE-T Act's impact on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and how several riders of the flawed law will further hinder officers as they attempt to carry out their duties.

The SAFE-T Act will hamstring police ability to defend law-abiding residents

Bearing in mind the troubling favoritism with criminals in the SAFE-T Act, it should not come as a surprise lawmakers in the IGA who crafted the bill originally sought to eliminate qualified immunity for officers. A legal protection extended to law enforcement, the rationale behind qualified immunity is to permit police to perform discretionary duties without fear of personal liability or vexatious litigation, to the exception when an officer violates clearly established statutory or constitutional law.

Though qualified immunity does not shield police from criminal charges, discipline or termination, irresponsible critics of police have faced little resistance to their perpetuation of the myth the doctrine wholly insulates officers from criminal liability. An utter fiction, though lawmakers initially wanted to do away with qualified immunity, it did not appear in the final draft of the SAFE-T Act.

Although qualified immunity was spared from the new crime law, in a prescient warning which signals left-wing lawmakers intend to return and explore avenues to place severe limits on or abolish the legal protection, the SAFE-T Act did explicitly commission the creation of a panel to explore the judicial doctrine and present conclusions to Gov. Pritzker. Since its empanelment, the commission has met and deliberated on several occasions. As of Nov. 1, the working group is said to be considering 17 recommendations apropos to qualified immunity. Chicago police best be prepared for lawmakers to take another bite at the qualified immunity apple.

Apart from CPD preparing for the weakening or abolishment of qualified immunity, the SAFE-T Act also eliminates an entire category of arrestable criminal offenses. Under the new law, Class B misdemeanors — crimes with a maximum penalty of six months in the county jail — are no longer offenses in which a suspect can be taken into custody by a police officer. A class of offenses that includes — inter alia — Criminal Trespass to Land, Window Peeking, Telephone Harassment, Picketing a Residence, and Simulating Legal Process, only allowing a citation for these offenses will prevent CPD from protecting residential property or arresting any individual masquerading as a public official or people acting on behalf of the city serving legal documents.

Worse, however, is the removal of penalties for the crime of Obstruction of Service of Process. A critical function of the law, the SAFE-T Act decriminalizes resisting or obstructing the lawful execution of civil or criminal court orders. A provision which essentially sanctions individuals to evade or resist attempts by court-appointed officials to carry out official court orders — the issuance of arrest warrants, for example — the inability of court officials to perform their duties unhindered will delay or prevent justice, and undercut CPD attempts to resolve public order matters considerably.

Moreover, a passage in the law which symbolizes the collapse of accountability for criminal offenders, the SAFE-T Act is designed to broaden due process maximally. In consideration of the new law’s treatment of Class B offenders and the solicitousness with which Class A offenders are currently dealt — most of whom are immediately released — under the SAFE-T Act, the courts are limited in its ability to issue warrants for failure to appear. The court is now required to first schedule a hearing for the accused to show cause for failing to appear before a judge can issue a warrant. An astonishing accommodation verging on a reward to those who flout the law, this statute compels police to search for offenders to serve a notice and further delays justice.

In another troubling aspect of the SAFE-T Act, the new law completely reconstructs initial and ongoing police training requirements and certification procedures. An increase in duties and responsibilities delegated to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board (ILETSB), this mandate is unfunded and language in the law does not specifically state whether coursework required for officers to meet new ILETSB standards will be offered.

Complimenting new certification requirements, the SAFE-T Act also calls for an additional 30 hours of training every three years. Although some of the training may be advantageous — above all the scenario-based training or use-of-force techniques — additional training includes instruction in the areas of “deescalation” and “racial and ethnic sensitivity.” A calculated attempt to browbeat and indoctrinate officers in the social justice ethos, the new law makes no mention of the fact nearly half of CPD personnel are members of minority groups and the most effective form of “deescalation” is compliance with lawful police commands.

The sponsors of the SAFE-T Act also required body-worn cameras (BWC), for police departments across the state. Though most members of CPD are issued body-worn cameras, the new law burdens CPD with a staggering array of rules, regulations and restrictions under which BWC must remain active and recording and when cameras may be disabled. A bewildering set of directives, critics of the new rules fear gaps in video could falsely incriminate an officer over a simple procedural oversight or devious criminal defense attorneys could avail themselves of the new law to file endless legal requests for the purpose of creating significant delays in court proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, the sponsors of the SAFE-T Act also designed the law to boost the fortunes of the accused. A proviso which mandates the accused the right to place three phone calls at each place of detention, lawmakers who created the law failed to consider the near-certain likelihood a suspect in custody could avail themselves of additional phone communication privileges to intimidate witnesses into silence or concoct watertight alibis with co-conspirators. Short-sighted lawmakers favoring the SAFE-T Act were also unconcerned with the fact detainees moved to multiple detainment facilities could afford the accused the right to place countless phone calls. A rider in the SAFE-T Act deliberately placed by lawmakers to bake in advantages to suspected criminals, this concession only aids the accused in their attempt to thwart police investigations.

As if the SAFE-T Act’s authors had not done enough damage to precious justice, particularly problematic for Chicago police is a statute which requires all records related to complaints lodged against an officer, investigations, and outcomes be permanently maintained. A gesture which represents lawmakers’ boundless hostility with law enforcement, the objective is to establish a perpetual database of alleged police “misdeeds.” An eternal repository for the purpose of doing lasting damage to an officer’s career or framing police as racist, the archive was conceived by lawmakers with a mind to permanently tarnish an officer’s record, regardless of whether the accusation is later determined to be categorically false or not sustained.

While it is vital to correct police abuse, a credible accusation is not an unsettling rumor; on the contrary, a credible allegation involving police misconduct is a charge involving independently verifiable information. Yet Democrats who drafted the law make no distinction between what is determined to be truthful and accurate and an allegation which is pure invention.

Mud sticks, however. The desire among Democratic lawmakers in the IGA to place a mark of Cain on Chicago police officers is obvious. This clause in the SAFE-T Act takes no account of hysterical residents known to cry police brutality, how guileful criminal defense lawyers use baseless accusations as a form of retaliation for lawful arrests or how phalanxes of lawyers with “civil rights” law firms known to sue police on behalf of violent criminals casting themselves as victims of hate or police abuse.

To further illustrate the SAFE-T Act’s animus with police, lawmakers who authored the bill stepped over a sacrosanct line to allow the submission of anonymous complaints against officers. A flagrant infringement on an officer’s Sixth Amendment right, harboring, as the sponsors of the new law apparently do, a myopic prejudice against policemen, lawmakers who engineered the SAFE-T Act must believe complainants should enjoy a special sort of immunity, and officers should not have the benefit of facing their accusers.

A terrible disservice to police officers, evidently, Democrats are oblivious to the fact anonymous complaints against police would likely be misused and wielded as a form of retaliation.

The SAFE-T Act should be renamed the “Criminal Enabling Act.”

In Chicago, ending violence on the streets should be a primary goal. Though Mayor Lightfoot has consistently stated she is committed to addressing crime, the “hands-off” approach baked into the SAFE-T Act will accomplish nothing.  

Although the SAFE-T Act was framed as legislation to achieve fairness, it does not. Rather than aspire for fairness, Democrats who engineered this law did so as the first legislative step in their plan to “reimagine policing.” A law with more rules than the Bible, the SAFE-T Act seeks to encumber Chicago police with such an excessive sum of crushing rules and restrictions on procedure to render officers powerless.

By weakening police authority on the streets, Democrats can make the argument to advance reconceptualizing police as an institution of last resort with the objective of shifting to alternatives to policing. A witches brew of impractical and absurd options to policing, the progressive conception of impending justice excludes police altogether in favor of, for example, gun buybacks, social workers and violence interrupters as first responders, decarceration, non-prosecution, and defunding police.

Worse still is the inspiration for the much of the language placing restrictions on Chicago police in the SAFE-T Act: Chicago’s anti-police posse. A gallery of sublime rogues, community organizers, quack clergymen, and some elected aldermen, these irascible activists have distinguished themselves for a confrontational stance in opposition to law enforcement, often in a loud, rude, and overbearing way. Included in their destabilizing activities are hysterical, intemperate rage and the demonization of police as armed racists, homicidal maniacs, or the enemy of Chicago’s minority residents. Individuals and groups with no sense of proportion, many involved with this alliance of radical anti-police activists have engaged in demonstrations in which protesters have called for police to be harmed or killed.  

A crude codification of anti-police rhetoric, drowned out amid the blaring din of noise from Chicago’s anti-police movement is the fact minorities are disproportionately victims of crime and law-abiding minorities in high-crime neighborhoods stand to suffer the most as Chicago police will be forced to retreat again in the face of crippling reform. That Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly wooed and legitimized such a disreputable constituency to assist in the creation of the SAFE-T Act is a disgrace.

If safety and security is ever to be restored to Chicago’s streets, the Chicago Police Department must lead the way. To accomplish such a demanding mission, officers serving the Windy City require broad discretionary authority in the course of their duties. Yet over the last two decades CPD has witnessed a steady removal of vital leverage over lawbreakers with which it was once endowed. The elimination of these advantages over criminals began with Chicago’s elected officials refusing to back the legitimacy of police in the public square.

In a staggering betrayal to police, lawmakers in Chicago and Springfield then began mollifying the anti-police movement, for they saw virtue in making common cause with an angry anti-police mob. Later, in a series of monumental capitulations to anti-police groups, Chicago sealed an agreement with the ACLU on “stop and frisk,” went along with an accord with the federal government — a paralyzing consent decree — and adopted an interminable series of restrictions placed on police policy, namely foot and vehicular pursuits. The undermining of the CPD’s mission by elected officials has tipped the balance of power on the streets in favor of Chicago’s criminal underclass.

All of this, of course, has caused Chicago to undergo its own version of the “Ferguson Effect,” whereby public scrutiny of police drives a sharp drop in proactive policing. Much evidence supports the “Ferguson Effect” hypothesis, which also posits that with police in headlong retreat, criminal activity rises. This means with police disengagement from vigilant policing, crime surges, neighborhoods are less safe and less suitable for living, and the law-abiding are left to fend for themselves.

For Chicago to reverse course, much of the responsibility rests with the few elected leaders who recognize the Chicago Police Department is a force of good. Voters, too, must mobilize to hold Democrats in both the Chicago City Council and in Springfield to account for being in thrall to the anti-police movement.

Voters must recognize the SAFE-T Act is nothing less than an attempt by the anti-police movement to topple the basis on which law and order exists in Chicago. Only the fury of the electorate will force lawmakers to once again provide for the safety of the lawful with the same vigor they put in to doting over the lawless.

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