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Blend forest preserve with sheriff's police

Sunday, February 15, 2009
by SouthtownStar editorial staff

THE ISSUE: Is taxpayer savings of $8.6 million enough to justify dissolving the Cook County Forest Preserve Police Department?

WE SAY: Only if Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart outlines a proposal that doesn't sacrifice public safety or the expertise the forest police force.

For years, elected officials have debated blending the Cook County Forest Preserve police force into the Cook County sheriff's department. The goal is cost savings.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart supports the idea, estimating during recent budget talks the consolidation would save taxpayers $8.6 million.

The current system is this: A specially trained force of 120 forest preserve officers patrol 68,000 acres of Cook County forest preserve from Glenview up north to Thornton down south to Oak Forest and Palos Heights.

The officers argue they're already spread thin. Not only do they respond to incidents in the forest preserves, they are trained on conservation issues that include fishing regulations and poaching laws. Some of them live in housing inside the preserves so they can respond quickly to emergencies.

They are paid under the Cook County Forest Preserve District budget, a separate taxing body on Cook County property tax bills.

"Crime is low in the forest preserves," forest preserve spokesman Steve Mayberry said. "To do away wholesale with this department would be doing serious detriment to the safety of the forest preserves."

And therein lies the real question: Are taxpayer savings of $8.6 million a significant enough reason to risk public safety by disbanding the police force?

We would oppose dissolving the forest preserve police if it meant Cook County sheriff's officers sporadically visiting the preserves or responding only when emergencies arise. A sufficient law enforcement presence on the trails must be maintained to proactively prevent crime, not just respond when it's too late.

So Dart would have to find within the bandwidth in his current 6,800 sheriff's police force to make his proposal appealing from a taxpayer perspective while maintaining trail safety.

We propose a compromise: Dart needs to shuffle the deck to allow some forest preserve officers to join the sheriff's department as positions open within his police force. He already is preparing to hire hundreds of jail guards; the reassignment and reorganization necessary to achieve that goal should include a holistic approach that includes bringing aboard some forest preserve police.

The entire sheriff's police force must undergo training that addresses forest preserve issues, and patrolling the preserves - not from inside squads in the parking lot but actually walking the trails - must be part of the program.

If this can be achieved, taxpayers would see long-term savings much greater than the numbers Dart offered. Simply put, it makes sense to blend these bodies.

It must be done gradually, however, under a two- or three-year program with a regular review process. Public safety must not be compromised.

In the meantime, the public needs to play a role, too. The rolling prairies and green forests require constant nurturing to control invasive plants and clean up trash. Volunteering is as easy as calling Friends of the Forest Preserves at (312) 356-9990.

We also can deter crime by using the forest preserves for picnics, family outings, fishing, hiking, nature walks and exercise. More eyes, fewer crimes.

These are our parks. We need to get inside them.

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