If the Illinois General Assembly wants to see true police reforms, it must first change the state law that gives police union contracts more power than public laws and regulations. Without that change, reforms become empty intentions.

The death of George Floyd in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer set off a firestorm of calls for police reform in 2020. Witnesses captured the scene with their smartphones, enabling the world to watch video of Floyd pinned to the ground, with a cop’s knee on his neck, as he suffocated over nearly nine minutes.

Illinois has seen its own police misconduct.

In 2014, teen Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by a Chicago Police Department officer as McDonald walked away. In late 2020, news emerged of a botched 2019 police raid, with Chicago police targeting the wrong woman, leaving the victim handcuffed and naked for more than 30 minutes.

McDonald’s death triggered a year-long investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Their final report rebuked the Chicago Police Department for failing to properly investigate and discipline officers engaging in misconduct. While the report included recommendations for reform, it also noted stipulations in the police union contract stood in the way.

Reformers have called for broad changes to investigations and discipline related to police misconduct. But in Illinois, any reforms at either the state or local level could prove futile because the state’s public labor statute gives those government union contracts greater power than any other laws or regulations.

Hidden in the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, or IPLRA, is Section 15, a provision entitled “Act Takes Precedence.”

The section explicitly details that when a contract between a government unit – such as a police department – and a union is in conflict with any other law or regulation, the contract prevails.

That includes any police reforms that run counter to provisions in a police union’s contract.

No matter what reforms state or local governments put in place, union collective bargaining agreements – and the disciplinary and other provisions therein – could be drafted to gut the intent of those reforms.

Effective police reforms require amending the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act

Specifically, the Illinois General Assembly should amend the IPLRA to remove the provision in Section 15 giving police union contracts greater power than state law, or at the very least to limit the subjects that can be negotiated between a government unit and peace officers.

Recent polling suggests most Illinois households – including most union households – think that provision in Section 15 should be changed.

When asked whether provisions in a police union contract, such as provisions providing for disciplinary processes, should carry more weight than provisions in state law, 51.4% answered “no” – including 52.2% of union households. Only 13% of respondents thought union contracts should trump state law.

Moreover, 50.9% of Illinoisans polled stated that law should be changed, including 51.2% of union households. Only 14.6% didn’t think the law should be changed.

Notably, the call to amend Section 15 is bipartisan, with 54% of Democrats and 50.1% of Republicans polled indicating they think the law should be changed.

There’s currently pending legislation that would do just that. House Bill 3891, sponsored by state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, and Senate Bill 2447, sponsored by state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, would exclude police union contracts from the language in Section 15, meaning those contracts would no longer be allowed to carry more weight than other laws.

The bills would only change Section 15 provisions for law enforcement, not for other public employee unions. That is consistent with state law that prevents police unions from going on strike because of the potential public harm.

A second set of bills, House Bill 3892 and Senate Bill 2448, sponsored by Slaughter and Hunter, would limit negotiations by police unions to wages only. While those bills would not touch the powerful language in Section 15, they would at least prevent union contracts from including disciplinary provisions that could subsequently overrule state law.

Now it’s time for the Illinois General Assembly to listen to the people and take action.