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Sheriffs: Criminal Justice Reform Bill Is ‘Overreaching,’ ‘Devastating’

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell, left, and Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower

The sheriffs of Peoria and Tazewell counties say they are open to addressing concerns regarding law enforcement, but a criminal justice reform bill before the General Assembly is problematic.

The 600-page criminal justice reform bill, HB 163, introduced in the current lame-duck session, aims to reverse institutional racism. Measures include eliminating cash bail, requiring all officers to wear body cameras, and establishing use-of-force guidelines.

The omnibus bill was introduced by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. Advocates say it was developed from hours of hearings in the fall and winter and will increase police accountability. 

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell called the legislation “overreaching and rushed.”

“I am an advocate for reform. I'm to the point where many in this profession don't like my voice on certain topics. Yes, we need reform,” said Asbell. “But we need to do this right, and if we don't have collaboration with all the stakeholders involved, it's going to fail.

“You're not going to change a culture through your legislation, and that's the danger I see.”

Tazewell County Sheriff Jeff Lower had an even harsher assessment of the bill.

“This is a very devastating piece of legislation for law enforcement and the communities that we serve,” said Lower, who serves on the Illinois Sheriffs Association’s legislative committee. “It will basically gut law enforcement. It takes away all of law enforcement's ability to do our job.”

One of the major areas of concern for both Asbell and Lower is the possible elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.

“Qualified immunity is not what people think it is. It protects law enforcement officers from civil suits, unless they're clearly violating either the Constitution or the law or policy,” said Lower. “It doesn't stop anyone from filing a lawsuit against the municipality or against the officer.”

He suggested the elimination of that protection would hurt officer recruitment and retention.

“We're having a hard enough time right now hiring qualified law enforcement personnel, and if this happens, we won't be able to hire anybody,” he said, noting some colleagues have told him they will leave their jobs if the bill becomes law. “It puts law enforcement in a position where we can't do our job to protect the people that we're supposed to protect.”

Asbell noted some of the requirements of the bill, such as the mandatory body cameras and increased training, do not come with specified funding and would place financial burdens on departments already cash-strapped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But he said his biggest concern with the legislation is the numerous negative unintended consequences, notably from eliminating cash bail and arrests for “category B and C offenses.” He said he has been asking legislators not to rush the reform process.

“Just pump the brakes. Let's slow down a little bit. Let's have a collaboration with all the stakeholders to do this right,” he said. “It's dangerous because these unintended consequences are predictable, and if you get this wrong by going so hot out of the gates, it can lead to a whole plethora of problems that's going to be hard to mitigate.”

Lower said trying to enact such sweeping changes during a five-day session would be “extremely damaging.”

“It’s not very well thought out, and it seems more punitive than anything,” he said. “We’re more than willing to sit down and try and come up with reforms, but we have to be given a seat at the table.

“We all have the same goal; we just want to protect and serve, that's it. We want to be involved in the process of being able to come up with some procedures, some laws that actually makes sense to everybody, and this doesn't. This is going to hurt everybody.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.