By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
Two of the state’s top officials each held news conferences Monday morning to outline current and proposed responses to increasing crime, including expressway shootings and organized retail thefts.
Gov. JB Pritzker appeared with Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly in Chicago to outline actions taken and arrests made in expressway shootings, while Attorney General Kwame Raoul appeared with the president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association to outline a proposed legislative package taking aim at organized retail crime.
Pritzker and Kelly said more than 20 arrests have been made in recent months related to expressway shootings and crime. The arrests included three first-degree murder charges, one involuntary manslaughter, three attempted murders, and other crimes such as aggravated discharge of a firearm, reckless discharge of a firearm, aggravated vehicular hijacking and aggravated fleeing and eluding.
While they were in the news conference, however, a shooting occurred on the Dan Ryan expressway, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Kelly said expressway shootings have increased because of the prevalence of cameras – from doorbell cameras to store security systems – almost everywhere else, other than expressways. Putting cameras there can help deter the shootings, he said.
“It’s almost like a modern, 21st century form of dueling,” Kelly said. “They say horrible things to each other on social media, they threaten one another and they say let’s take that out to the E-way. So let’s take this out to the expressway. And almost like Main Street in the Old West, they’re using these expressways for this type of violence.”
Pritzker and Kelly pointed to the installation of 99 cameras with license plate readers on the Dan Ryan expressway in Chicago, where many of the shootings have occurred, with “hundreds more” cameras coming.
In recent weeks, the ISP has worked with the Chicago Police Department, Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies, Pritzker said, leading to the 20 arrests.
Kelly said the agency increased patrol presence on Chicago expressways by over 150 percent at “peak criminal activity times.” Since October, that has led to nearly 5,000 traffic stops, 132 DUI arrests, 69 firearm recoveries and 133 criminal arrests in the Chicago area.
The Monday news conference touting the Pritzker administration’s approach came as he and Democrats in the General Assembly have faced consistent attacks from Republican lawmakers and political opponents amid the recent rise in violent crime.
Republicans have painted a criminal justice reform bill passed one year ago in January as a contributing factor to rising crime rates. That bill, known as the SAFE-T Act, overhauls police certification, reforms use-of-force standards, improves police accountability and abolishes cash bail beginning in 2023 in favor of a system that prioritizes risk of re-offending over an offender’s ability to afford release.
The GOP has introduced a package of bills looking to create mandatory minimums for certain violent crime offenses and to create a special, $125 million grant fund to beef up officer hiring and retainment efforts.
State Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, is the sponsor of the Senate GOP’s crime package. In response to the governor’s budget address, he outlined his view of the GOP and Democratic differences when it comes to crime.
“This is, I believe, a major difference between Gov. Pritzker and the Democrats and the Republicans,” he said. “They refuse to lock up truly violent people talking about so called low-level nonviolent offenders … all Gov. Pritzker wants to do is throw money at something that may or may not work years down the road. Republicans want to take violent criminals off the streets today.”
In recent budgets, Pritzker said his administration has increased funding for ISP officers to retrieve illegally owned guns and to hire new ISP cadets, including 300 in the upcoming fiscal year.
He also touted violence interruption spending, which he’s more than doubled in his tenure, an increase made possible due to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 response funding.
“Stopping the cycle of violence also means tackling poverty and root causes of crime, access to housing, health care, education and jobs,” Pritzker said Monday.
He also noted recent state spending on crime labs which was included in the 2019 Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan.
“Catching and prosecuting perpetrators can reduce and deter crime right now. And that’s what our excellent Illinois State Police troopers, new cameras and new crime labs are doing,” he said. “Between the stepped up patrols and the new technology we’ve brought to bear, anyone, anyone even thinking of committing violent crimes on our expressways ought to be on notice that they’re more likely today than ever before to get caught.”
Retail crime bills
Warning of “criminal rings” and “illicit trade,” Raoul, appearing with IRMA President Rob Karr, differentiated what he referred to as “organized retail crime” and the types of retail theft committed by “ragtag, low-level offenders.”
The legislative package addressing organized retail crime has not yet been drafted. But Raoul and Karr said it will aim to define organized retail crime in law, allowing prosecutors greater leeway to charge those participating in it, while also holding online marketplaces accountable and aiming to provide more state funding to address organized retail crime.
“Organized retail crime is not like your customary retail theft, and our laws should not treat them as such,” Raoul said. “These crimes are perpetrated by sophisticated criminal enterprises coordinating the thefts of many items of high value. Those items are often resold, and the funds are often used to fund drug trafficking and human trafficking.”
Raoul touted an organized retail crime task force overseen by his office, a public-private collaboration that includes retailers, online marketplaces, law enforcement agencies and state’s attorneys. Its first major bust was announced in early December, when over $1 million of stolen goods were recovered after an unrelated weapons arrest in Chicago.
But law enforcement alone can’t stop organized retail crime, Raoul said. The effort must also include retailers, online retailer platforms and lawmakers.
According to a news release, in the new proposal, prosecutors would be given wider discretion to bring charges regardless of where the crime takes place, meaning if the conspiracy, theft, and selling all occurred in different jurisdictions, each jurisdiction would have the ability to prosecute the entire crime.
The AG would also have the ability to prosecute via a statewide grand jury.
Online third-party sellers would be required to verify the identity of high-volume sellers using bank account numbers, taxpayer IDs or other information, and to suspend sellers for non-compliance.
The plan would also require the courts to give retail crime theft victims seven days’ notice of a court hearing.
Karr said organized retail theft is not a victimless crime.
“While the (Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago) and high-end stores have captured headlines, neighborhoods and retail corners throughout the state have been victims,” he said. “But it isn’t just faceless stores that are victims, either.”
Clerks who fear coming to work, consumers who worry about visiting stores, commuters and tourists who worry about downtown shopping, the hospitality industry which relies upon visitors, and anyone seeking economic development are all victims, he said, as are Illinois taxpayers, who rely on retail as the second largest generator of tax revenue.
“In my nearly three decades involved with retail, this is the first time that safety and crime has been one of the top two concerns as stores decide whether to locate or keep stores open,” he said.
The proposal also calls for an unspecified amount of funding, according to a news release, to create new positions in the AG’s office and various state’s attorney offices to investigate and prosecute retail theft and illicit trade.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.