Illinois AG brings his South Side upbringing into criminal justice

CHICAGO — Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul saw a question pop up on his Facebook feed after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. “How old were you when a cop 1st pulled a gun on you?”

“Seventeen,” he answered. It happened at the corner of 50th and Woodlawn avenues on Chicago’s South Side.

Recounting the scene decades later in an interview, Raoul, 55, said he and another kid were calling out to a friend who had just driven by. They were being loud the way teenage boys are, and running. A few beats later, a police car had rolled up and the officer drew his weapon before handcuffing them and taking them to the scene of a nearby mugging. The victims, who were white, initially thought Raoul and his friend looked like the perpetrators but said “they had different jackets on.”

Raoul paused at the recollection, the first time he’d detailed the incident publicly. “If it weren’t for the puffy jacket I wore that day … I think about how that could have changed my life forever.”

It wasn’t his last brush with the police even after he became a local prosecutor, and there are plenty of Black Americans with their own stories about confrontations with law enforcement. But few of them rise in power like Raoul, the son of Haitian immigrants, who served 14 years in the state Senate seat that opened up with Barack Obama’s election to Congress.

Now, nearly two years in as Illinois attorney general, Raoul is a figure to watch as a state official responsible for translating protest and outrage on the streets into actionable criminal justice and policing reforms after Floyd’s death and the August shooting of Jacob Blake in neighboring Wisconsin. While not ignoring the attorney general’s role in consumer-protection issues, Raoul is steadily expanding the job to rethink how law enforcement approaches communities of color, including licensing officers and building a public database of police misconduct. It’s an issue he championed in the Legislature, but the weight of an attorney general title — and a world in which everyone can bear witness to police behavior with their mobile devices — has offered him a chance to pull new levers on criminal justice.

“The timing of this atrocity during a pandemic offered an opportunity to do something bolder,” he said of Floyd’s killing. “And this perfect storm has allowed me to convene people to discuss next steps in a way that was unthinkable before this moment.”

It’s an impetus for law enforcement to help design “real changes,” Raoul said. “It’s allowing us to work toward creating a code of conduct and a real, statewide platform for police accountability.”

Raoul is one of seven Black people serving as independently elected attorneys general (there’s only one Black woman: Tish James of New York). Though they’re small in number, their voices carry weight among state attorneys general nationwide, said Karen White, executive director of the Attorney General Alliance, a bipartisan group that convenes more than 40 state attorneys generals to discuss emerging legal issues such as cannabis regulation and sports betting.

“He’s one of the most prominent African American statewide leaders in the country,” White said of Raoul. “Their mere presence [during group discussions] asks us to look at things from a perspective that we might not if they weren’t in the room.”

Color is hardly the only factor. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris climbed the ladder of California politics as the state’s attorney general before getting elected to the Senate. Yet while she’s before the election, he acknowledges Nov. 6, Election Day, is an “emotional day for me.” It’s the anniversary of his father’s death.

In his victory speech, Raoul tweaked the skeptics who called his race “a nail-biter” and said, “Numbers don’t lie.”

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