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Niles, Morton Grove police officials: Courthouse closures just shift burden

Monday, January 23, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

The anticipated closure of suburban courthouses on Saturdays has police chiefs concerned about time and resources the decision will cost their departments.

Michael Alsup, president of the North Suburban Association of Police Chiefs, said the organization’s membership directed him Jan. 5 to ask Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans to reconsider the closures, which will require police officers from more than 120 suburban municipalities to transport arrestees to the Cook County Courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago for weekend bond hearings.

Four Cook County Board commissioners are now asking their colleagues to reconsider the move, which was part of a cost-savings plan announced by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s Office last month.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, whose district includes Niles and Morton Grove, co-sponsored a proposal issued at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting that asks the chief judge’s office to halt all plans until considering alternative options, such as rotating weekend court closures and maintaining three courthouses for northern, southern and centrally located municipalities.

Yet the board’s decision to move the proposal to a yet-to-be-determined committee meeting instead of voting on the measure last week means suburban courthouses will continue to close as planned.

The Fifth Municipal District Courthouse in Bridgeview, the first of five courthouses slated to close, ceased its weekend operations Jan. 14.

Dates have not been set for the other courthouses.

Currently, Saturday bond hearings for people arrested by law-enforcement agencies in northern Cook County are held at the Second Municipal District Courthouse in Skokie and at the Third Municipal District Courthouse in Rolling Meadows, depending on the location of the alleged crime.

The closures are expected to save the county about $2 million, according to Preckwinkle’s staff.

Niles Police Chief Dean Strzelecki said that while he understands the county board’s motivation for cutbacks, the measure will just mean additional costs for suburban police departments.

“They’re trying to do the best they can with limited resources,” he said. “But this isn’t saving people money. Somebody is going to pay for this.”

Strzelecki added: “For us, it’s the constituents here in Niles. This is just another county service we’re paying for that no one is going to provide.”

Morton Grove Police Chief Mark Erickson agreed, saying his department’s stance is not unlike many others in the suburbs since, ultimately, “local municipals are the ones who are going to be paying the costs.”

“We’re looking at increased costs in overtime and, overall, we do not think this is a savings for the Cook County taxpayer,” Erickson said. “It’s just shifting the cost from the Cook County Board and government to local villages.”

Sgt. Robert Tornabene, Niles’ police public-information officer, said the Niles Police Department is now determining the impact the Skokie courthouse closure will have on its operations.

Thirty-two uniformed officers now work in Niles’ patrol division, Tornabene said, though he could not confirm the number of officers who work on the weekends, citing safety concerns.

He said that on any given weekend Niles police might arrest one to five individuals who require bonding out at a county courthouse.

Those arrested between Saturday and Sunday night often wait until Monday before appearing in court in Skokie, which is 5.5 miles from the Niles Police Department, 7000 W. Touhy Ave., and 3 miles away from the Morton Grove Police Department, 6101 Capulina Ave.

The Chicago courthouse is nearly 18 miles away from Niles and 19.5 miles from Morton Grove.

Tornabene said not everyone arrested in Niles requires a bond hearing in order to be released from police custody.

Many people arrested for misdemeanor crimes can bond out at the police station. All felony offenses require that the arrestee appear before a judge, and individuals with active warrants and holds issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement will also be required to attend a bond hearing, Tornabene said.

In addition to fiscal concerns Strzelecki said the safety of officers is also in jeopardy.

Instead of traveling 10 minutes to Skokie, Strzelecki said officers will have to travel more 30 minutes with handcuffed persons in cars that aren’t designed for transport.

“Now you’ve got (an arrestee) who is normally calm in the car turning into a combative person,” he said. “I don’t think (the Chicago courthouse) is a centrally located place for (police departments) in Cook County to bring our prisoners.”

Strzelecki said these types of issues might compel suburban police departments to pool resources and collectively purchase a proper transport vehicle.

Alsup, who also serves as chief of police of Harper College in Palatine, said most suburban departments do not have the vehicles or staff to transport prisoners long distances, and many are operating with fewer officers on the street and minimal overtime due to their own budgetary difficulties.

“Our officers belong in our communities protecting our citizens, the people who are paying for them,” Alsup said. “They don’t belong down at 26th and California.”

Tight staffing on the weekends may also force Niles officers to hold arrested people at the Niles Police Station until Monday, when they can be transported to Skokie, Strzelecki said.

Niles’ holding cells, remodeled in 2003, hold at least 10 persons at a time.

More troubling to police departments than the altering of their operations is the fact that they were initially left out of all discussions about the change in court procedures.

“We weren’t even considered, and that was the problem most of the chiefs have,” Strzelecki said.

Tornabene added: “It’s not very neighborly.”

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