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The Illinois Innocence Project (IIP), based at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), held its first mandated statewide Wrongful Conviction Awareness and Avoidance (WCAA) training for University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Police Training Institute (PTI) recruit officers on Friday, March 31, in Urbana. The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which oversees the development and provision of law enforcement training, mandated IIP’s police training program as a required curriculum at all Illinois police training academies starting in 2023.

WCAA’s purpose is to introduce police recruits and cadets to the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions with the goal to minimize convicting individuals for crimes they did not commit. Illinois leads the country in wrongful convictions. Some of those convictions are due to the actions of police and prosecutors engaging in common practices that contribute to the convictions, oftentimes with no malice or ill intent.

“Law enforcement and the Illinois Innocence Project share a common goal – to seek the truth,” said Stephanie Kamel, co-director of the Illinois Innocence Project. “No one wants to see the wrong person imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. No one wants the actual perpetrator to go free. Police officers, on the front line of the criminal justice system, can play an important role in preventing this from happening.”

IIP’s training is based on a model developed over the past six years in collaboration with PTI Director Mike Schlosser. Nearly 1,000 recruits and cadets from departments throughout Illinois have attended the training that until now has been an elective course.

“This model is groundbreaking in police training, not only in Illinois but also throughout the country,” Schlosser said. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no other wrongful conviction training being offered on an ongoing basis anywhere else in the U.S.

Participants report the most powerful part of the training session is hearing the personal stories of exonerees – innocent people who have suffered years of wrongful imprisonment.

Kristine Bunch, exonerated in Indiana by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, was wrongfully convicted of the arson murder of her three-year-old son. She spent 17 years wrongfully imprisoned until new fire science proved her innocence. Bunch has been one of the training’s primary exoneree presenters.

“My experience taught me that I should distrust anyone involved with the justice system,” Bunch said. “To connect with these recruits and cadets through my painful story allows me to see them as human beings, not just police officers, and to understand that not all police officers are the same.”

The statewide mandate means IIP will carry out 25-30 trainings per year among all Illinois police academies. Bunch is working with IIP to assemble a cohort of exonerees from across the country who will present in future training sessions. They will gather in Urbana for initial orientation and training, part of which will involve attending the WCAA training on March 31.

“The involvement of exonerees in this training program is critical to its success,” Schlosser said. “I have seen the deep impression an innocent person’s story of wrongful conviction has on my recruits. I truly believe that it will stay with them as they enter into the difficult life of active policing.”

The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, as stated on its website, “is the state agency mandated to promote and maintain a high level of professional standards for law enforcement and correctional officers.”