For decades, police officers have been taught to immediately view suspects with guns as potential criminals. Now, that’s all starting to change.
With enactment of a new law allowing Illinois citizens to legally carry concealed firearms, suburban Cook County and Chicago law enforcement agencies are retraining police officers to follow a protocol requiring them to interact differently with people they encounter, even if they have a gun on them.
The new procedures touch every aspect of police interaction with the public. For example, during a routine traffic stop, officers must now ask drivers for license, registration and if they are carrying a concealed firearm. Some police officers worry that asking people if they possess a gun could open up their departments to charges of racial profiling or targeting suspects.
“We’ve always been taught one way to deal with people with firearms and this forces us to take a different approach,” said Arlington Heights Police Chief Gerald Mourning. “In the past, when you had somebody armed, we would separate the person from the firearm as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. Now individuals are allowed to carry firearms, so we have to respect those rights.”
The Illinois Firearm Concealed Carry Act, which was passed by the General Assembly in 2013 and then signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn, allows licensed individuals to carry a concealed or partially concealed handgun in public places.
Illinois became the last state in the country to legalize concealed carry after a federal appeals court declared its longtime ban unconstitutional.
As a result, police officers now must handle encounters with gun owners in a different manner, one that still protects public safety but without infringing on anyone’s legal right to carry a weapon.
“It’s a mental shift for officers,” said Jeffrey Swoboda, police chief in Elgin. “Up until this [law], someone with a gun is a problem. Now that’s not the case.”
What’s more, the burden falls on police officers to determine whether or not a person is armed during an “investigative stop” when somebody is suspected of committing a crime, according to the new law.
“We are accustomed to asking for license and registration, and now the follow-up question is, ‘Are you concealing a weapon?’” said Schaumburg Police Chief James Lamkin.
But, given the confrontational nature of certain police encounters, some law enforcement officials expressed concern about officer safety and other sensitive issues that could arise when officers ask about firearms.
Another police tactic known as “stop-and-frisk” – a practice that allows officers to briefly detain suspects and search them for weapons – already stirs controversy about police interactions with the community. Opponents say “stop-and-frisk” infringes on privacy rights and that officers may be stopping people for the wrong reasons, such as their race.
Now, with concealed carry added to the mix, people who are asked about firearms may take the question the wrong way and think they are being targeted by law enforcement, said Jay Parrott, a commander with the Evanston Police Department.
They might question the officer, “Do you ask every person you stop? Why are you asking me? Are you asking because of my demographic? Because you don’t like me? Because I look funny?” Parrott said.
“People are very sensitive any time you deal with the police,” he added.
To help guide officers in the field, police departments are updating policies and training, according to a Better Government Association survey of 10 Chicago-area agencies plus the City of Chicago.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police developed a model policy that outlines suggested procedures, such as where and how to store firearms in certain scenarios.
“If someone has a concealed carry license and they need medical treatment, what do you do in that situation? … How do you return the firearm to the owner?” said John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “These are the things we want to spell out to the officers.”
The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, the state agency that sets professional standards for police officers, developed curriculum for its academies and mobile training units, as well as a DVD that was sent to every police agency in the state.
The DVD breaks down the new law and offers scenario-based segments that address “how officers might want to change their thinking as they approach citizens now,” according to Larry Smith, the board’s deputy director.
In Chicago, police officers are required to undergo training that explains the law, procedural changes and the responsibilities that officers now have when dealing with concealed carry licensees, according to Adam Collins, spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.
The training, Collins said, will ensure “that officers are prepared to handle those situations in a safe way but also in a way that’s responsible and respectful for the legal gun owners.”
In order to better track concealed carry and how it is playing out in the community, the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence is calling for a centralized online database with information related to incidents in which a firearm was discharged.
That way “you can look and see if the problem comes down to a particular kind of firearm or a particular community,” said Colleen Daley, executive director of the gun control group.
“I think a lot of law enforcement is taking a wait and see approach,” she said. “At the end of the day, the best way to see this law and what’s happening is to see” the data.
Illinois State Police began mailing out the first concealed carry licenses last month, so many police departments are still in transition.
“Like any new law, it’s going to take a little while to make sure we get it right, but in the end it’s going to be handled properly,” Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy said.