Editorial: Redefining “Safety”

The SAFE-T Act, set to take effect in Illinois on New Year’s Day, will strain police budgets and endanger officers and the public.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Late summer 1993. I’m driving across country and decide I want to go to the historic Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg and visit what was at the time the only World War II museum in the Continental United States. After settling in at a local motel, I go down to the desk and ask the clerk for a restaurant recommendation. He suggests a German place about two miles away in downtown. I ask if it’s safe to walk. He smiles and says, “Oh, yeah. Crime’s illegal in Fredericksburg.”

Some 29 years later, I now wonder if crime is still illegal in Fredericksburg. It certainly is becoming much less so in other parts of the country.

Consider the ironically named SAFE-T (Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity-Today) Act, which becomes law in Illinois on New Year’s Day. Some people have called this legislation the “Purge Act” in reference to the popular series of horror movies about making all crime legal.

The SAFE-T Act is more than 740 pages of legislation. So I doubt more than 15% of the people who voted on it read anything more than the executive summary of the thing. And to be fair, I have to inform you that I haven’t read it either because, well…it’s 740 odd pages of legislative speak and reading it is a bad use of my time. So this analysis is from a number of different sources, who hopefully read the bill.

This legislation essentially addresses three aspects of criminal justice in the Land of Lincoln: law enforcement, corrections (which I don’t have room to discuss), and pre-trial detentions.

In the law enforcement section, the law mandates that every Illinois-based law enforcement agencies must have body cameras by 2025, prohibits “chokeholds,” imposes a duty to intervene when officers witness another officer using excessive force, restricts acquisition of military surplus gear, allows officers to be accused of misconduct by anonymous sources, and so much more.

Proponents of the new law bristle when opponents claim it defunds law enforcement. They say it does not touch police budgets. Which appears absolutely true, unless you’re smart enough to rip apart their logic. Forcing every law enforcement agency in the state to buy body cameras and digital evidence storage capability without providing additional funding is defunding.

All that cop-specific stuff in the SAFE-T Act is going be a bitter pill for some law enforcement agencies and officers. But the bigger issues for Illinois police are going to arise from the pre-trial detention elements of the pending law, which are going to put more criminals back out on the street to victimize the public and assault cops.

First and foremost, cash bail will no longer exist. Everyone arrested after Jan. 1, 2023, and charged with a crime will be released on their own recognizance, unless they fit certain criteria. If they are accused of “forcible felonies,” stalking, or domestic violence, then they can be held until trial. Which is fine, but what if they were convicted of carjacking in 2017 and now get pinched on a DUI? Then pre-trial detention is going to be up to the judge who will have to determine if the accused is a flight risk or “poses a specific, real, and present threat to any person or the community.” How many judges do you think will be courageous enough to crawl out on that ledge and face the prospect of having Black Lives Matter and Antifa camping on their lawn?

Other elements of the pre-trial detention aspects of the law are perhaps even more dangerous. Arrestees will now have the right to make three phone calls to numbers found in their own cell phones within three hours of arrest and before questioning. That means instead of just calling his attorney, the arrested gang shot caller can call his wife and tell her in code to have the witness silenced, call his attorney, and call a friend and have them plan a party for when he gets home later that night.

There’s so much concern about the effect on public safety from the SAFE-T Act that both the state’s Democrat attorney general and his Republican opponent in the November elections are recommending changes. Vocal proponents and opponents of the Act are urging revisions before it becomes law. Some prosecutors have filed lawsuits to stop it. And there’s even a review process built into the actual law that requires its effects to be studied and analyzed by academics and the National Institute of Justice and then amended if necessary. But once this Pandora law is unleashed it’s going to take an act of God to get It back in the box.   

So, Illinois, you’re screwed. You’re about to experience a new definition of public SAFE-T.

Let’s just hope that the rest of the country doesn’t follow your lead. If it does, it won’t even be safe to walk from that motel in Fredericksburg, TX, to an awesome German restaurant.

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