Whoa, sheriff: Take it easy with that ax
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
by Sun Times editorial staff
Should the Cook County Forest Preserve police be disbanded to save
money and their duties handed over to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart?
Dart thinks so. Dart's officers already investigate major crimes
that occur in the preserves. And he says that if about 20 sheriff's
officer positions lost to earlier budget cuts were restored, he could
take over the work of 104 forest preserve police jobs as well.
That, Dart says, would save taxpayers about $8 million a year.
Saving money is undoubtedly important at a time when governments at
all levels are trying to squeeze every possible nickel. All three
candidates running for Cook County Board president have said they
support the idea.
But good government is often more complicated than simply cutting
The forest preserve police have responsibilities that are
considerably different from those of most police departments. They must,
for example, worry about the poaching of rare or endangered reptiles,
amphibians and plants. They must be vigilant about illegal trail use,
which can significantly degrade nature areas. They must know the woods
intimately so they can track down illegally planted marijuana patches.
Such concerns aren't as likely to hold the attention of county police
officers who may feel they have far more serious crimes to worry about.
In fact, those sorts of violations in the preserves were given such
short shrift amid the more serious crimes on Cook County court dockets
that a separate administrative court recently was created to process
tickets written by the forest preserve police.
Unlike the past, when many forest preserve police officers were
patronage workers with no special skills, all of them now are trained by
the state in conservation issues. For example, they must know fishing,
wildlife and boating regulations.
A rule of thumb in police work is that it takes about five officers
to staff one around-the-clock, seven-day-a-week position. If Dart added
20 officers, he would get roughly four extra officers per shift to
patrol almost 69,000 acres of forest preserves spread throughout the
county. And that's not counting the days when officers have to testify
That doesn't sound to us like much police manpower for the preserves,
no matter what administrative efficiencies Dart can devise, assuming
the 180 patrol officers he already has are busy enough already.
Policing the forest preserves isn't easy because much of the
territory is out of the reach of squad cars. It is patrolled partly by
officers using all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes and even horses.
Sheriff's police officers are paid about $20,000 a year more than the
forest preserve police, so if Dart finds he needs to hire more officers
than he thought, the expected savings would start to melt away.
Any proposal to trim government and save money is worth exploring.
But if we don't step carefully, we might wind up in a patch of poison