When Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul watched the video of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, he found himself wishing he could have done more years ago.
“I’m angry in all sorts of directions, including angry at myself,” Raoul said in an interview this week with WBEZ. “We’ve had several incidents over time that at each point we say, ‘Oh, this could serve as an impetus for change,’ and we only go so far, right? We only go so far.”
Raoul is a first-term Democrat who’s just the second black man to serve as the state’s top elected law enforcement officer. He’s continued the office’s legal effort to put a consent decree in place for the Chicago Police Department. His comments come a week after Floyd’s killing sparked daily demonstrations against police violence across the world, looting around Illinois and a threat from the president of the United States to order federal troops to stand guard against American protesters.
Now, Raoul is renewing his push for a controversial police reform measure, he told WBEZ, to require cops to be licensed by the state.
His self-directed anger stems from his time as an Illinois state senator. After the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Raoul helped lead the passage of a sweeping criminal justice bill that was ultimately signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The bill created a system for police officers to use body cameras, prohibited the use of police chokeholds and created a database of officers who were fired or resigned due to misconduct.
But Raoul tells WBEZ he had to drop one key element of the bill in order to get enough support for it to pass. And that’s the element he now says would have the most impact: Have the state license police officers the same way it licenses physicians, pharmacists and hairdressers.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the legislature to do what they’ve done for many other professions to have consequence for repeated misconduct or single acts of egregious misconduct,” Raoul said.
“If they have an egregious act of official misconduct or a pattern of such, they can have their license taken away such that they cannot participate in that profession anymore and that should be the same thing for a law enforcement officer who is capable of using deadly force in carrying out his or her duties.”
Raoul said a state licensing system would ensure that officers with repeated misconduct claims could have their licenses pulled — regardless of how discipline is handled in a police union contract — and they would then be forbidden from continuing to do police work in another city. He argues such a system could’ve disciplined so-called “bad apple” cops like former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murdering Laquan McDonald, or Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with second-degree murder for killing Floyd.
The executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, Ed Wojcicki, did not take a clear stance on whether his organization supports or opposes licensing cops.
“Any response to George Floyd, you’re not going to get any disagreement from law enforcement about what happened there,” Wojcicki said. “We’re right with everybody to say that was a terrible thing that happened.”
Wojcicki said his association is open to discussing the topic with Raoul, but he also questioned whether the current certification process for officers could just be amended, rather than establishing an entirely new licensure process. State law does establish a process for the decertification of officers, but only if they are convicted of certain crimes, such as sexual abuse.
By contrast, revoking an officer’s license could come as a result of disciplinary action taken against them for misconduct, not only convictions.
Raoul defends Illinois’ current chokehold policy
Raoul said what stood out to him as he watched the video showing Floyd’s killing is a look of “numbness” on Chauvin’s face as he knelt on Floyd’s neck.
“There’s a sickness that has to be associated with that,” he said. “But the notion there were other officers there equally treating it as just a casual situation angers me.”
But as Raoul expressed his support for the peaceful demonstrations in response to Floyd’s death — which he says his own children have joined — he defended a portion of the 2015 law that forbids the use of police chokeholds but allows certain types of holds to the neck. That section allows holds that are not “intended to reduce the intake of air.”
Raoul defended that language, likening someone who’s resisting arrest to wrestling — in which there may be contact with the neck. He said it’s “unrealistic” to expect there will be no neck contact when police scuffle with someone resisting arrest.
“The next horrific death — God forbid — might be somebody kneeing somebody to the stomach,” he said. “There are all sorts of different forms of conduct they could do that can be fatal contact that I don’t know whether it’s in the province of the legislature to start calling balls and strikes on that.”
Patting down a prosecutor: Raoul reflects on his own police run-ins
Raoul said his own experiences with the police inform the policies he’s now promoting, such as the state licensure of officers.
During the interview with WBEZ, he recalled four run-ins with the police in his life, from after the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986 to being put in handcuffs at age 17 and taken to the scene of a crime.
In another instance, while he was in college, Raoul recalled being handcuffed after he was cut off by an unmarked police car while driving his mother’s new car. And Raoul chuckled incredulously as he recounted being patted down at a time he was a prosecutor — wearing his suit and tie — because, he was told, he matched the description of someone who’d been stealing vehicles around Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood.
He says his anger grows when he thinks about how black people across the country must have “the conversation” with their children about how to interact with police so that their kids can return home alive.
“When I said earlier I’m angry at myself, I’ve been criticized much in my career about showing too much passion sometimes and I think that passion grows from my personal experiences,” he said.
Raoul thinks his campaign to have the state license police officers now has a better chance of passing the legislature than it did five years ago.
“I’m hopeful,” he said. “The nation watched as an officer casually caused asphyxiation by kneeling on a man’s neck for minutes. That has angered a lot of people. That has moved a lot of people. That has forced a lot of people to look in the mirror and say, ‘What have I done to contribute to this?’
“It is moving people to think, and that is perhaps a silver lining, but a man shouldn’t have to lose his life for that thought process amongst the masses to occur.”
Tony Arnold covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.