March 13, 2008

SPRINGFIELD (March 13)—The House Railroad Committee approved 8-0 an amendment to the Illinois Railroad Police Act that would give the Illinois State Police the authority to review allegations of misconduct or abuse of authority by railroad police against railroad employees.

The measure was approved with the provision that the bill is to be viewed as “a work in progress.” Any additional work on the bill will require that the measure return to the Committee before heading to the House floor.

“The goal is to find a means to ensure ‘independent and objective oversight’ over the ‘specially granted’ police powers given to railroads,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

Noting that the UTU secured an amendment in 2006 mandating that railroad police be trained to the same standards as civil police officers, Szabo called today’s amendments “an effort to ensure that the specially granted police powers given to a private corporation are used for law-enforcement purposes only and not as a means to interfere with employees rights or the labor-management balance of power.”

The legislation, introduced by House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Hoffman and presented in the House Rail Committee by Representative Tom Holbrooke (D-Belleville), allows allegations of abuse of authority or misconduct by railroad police officers to flow through an independent review process.

“If the legislation passes in its current form, an employee who feels he or she was the victim of abuse by a railroad police force will have the right to seek an independent review of his or her case from the Illinois State Police,” Szabo said. “This is a new level of oversight and protection that railroad employees have not had before.”

The Amendment also exempts officers of railroad unions from trespassing charges when they enter upon railroad property as part of their duties, including investigating accidents, making safety inspections or exercising powers they enjoy under the Federal Railway Labor Act.

“The overall goal is to make sure that railroad police forces are subject to the same level of accountability as public police forces,” Szabo said.

“With most police forces there is a high degree of public accountability through civil boards and elected officials,” he said. “But private railroad police enjoy all the powers state statute grants to civil police forces but without any public oversight. Any allegations of misuse of power occur are reviewed solely by the railroad’s management. That simply allows for mischievous use of specially granted police powers placed in corporate hands.”

Szabo indicated that the concern is about how a railroad corporation chooses to use its police powers, particularly as a tool against its unions, and has little to do with the independent actions of a single officer.

“While there is always the risk of an individual officer abusing his power – as there is on any police department – for the most part the men and women who wear the badge for a railroad are highly professional,” he said. “Our concern is how railroad supervisors use police power, particularly as a tool to interfere with safety inspections or other legitimate union business.”

Szabo concluded: “If there is one thing Americans in all walks of life have learned over the past generation it is that police power must be used responsibly and must be accountable to higher authority.

“A railroad police department cannot be responsible solely to railroad management,” he said. “It must answer for its actions to the civil authorities outside the company. The new House amendment will bring railroad police departments in Illinois closer to the civil standard.”