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Sheriff's officers shortage leads to disorder in the court

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Stefano Esposito

It’s 82 degrees, feels 10 degrees hotter, and the crowd has swollen to about 80 outside the satellite courthouse at Grand and Central — still locked at 9 a.m., when the court call typically begins.

Some mop their foreheads. Others fidget and fume.

“I need to be at work,” said Howard Smith, 63, there Tuesday to offer support for a relative with a drug case. “It’s deplorable.”

Many inside the building would agree. A chronic — some would say dangerous — shortage of available sheriff’s officers mean court often starts late, infuriating lawyers, the public and judges.

On at least one occasion last month, a judge at Grand and Central had to step down from the bench, leave the courtroom and head to the lockup to request a prisoner.

“She came to the lockup to request a prisoner because there was no officer in her courtroom at the time,” said a sheriff’s employee who didn’t want her name used for fear of jeopardizing her job.

The veteran sheriff’s employee said staffing shortages are similar in the branch court at Harrison and Kedzie and — to a lesser degree, at Western and Belmont.

The employee, who has knowledge of all three facilities, said on a good day, eight sheriff’s deputies work at Grand and Central — which has two courtrooms — when the building needs 15.

“This building alone has lost four officers in the last year and none of them have been replaced,” the sheriff’s employee said.

 The fear: An altercation — perhaps at the front entrance — requiring several deputies to respond.

“Do we abandon the courtroom to come help [the front entrance deputy] and hope the judge doesn’t get jumped?” the sheriff’s employee said. “Or do we abandon the prisoners? It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Cara Smith, a spokeswoman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said: “The Sheriff’s office has faced significant staffing challenges over the past several years and have lost approximately 500 positions in Court Services. However, we are constantly working to ensure we are responsive to the needs of the public and court personnel and are utilizing our resources in the most efficient manner. The Sheriff has repeatedly expressed concerns over our staffing levels and has suggested consideration be given to closing the branch courts.”

On Tuesday, the doors finally opened to the public at 9:04 a.m., but 15 minutes later, about two dozen people were still in line, waiting to pass through the security checkpoint. The doors used to open at 8:30 a.m.

Judge Ann O’Donnell called her court to order at 9 a.m., noting the number of attorneys, police officers waiting to testify, but no defendants in court.

“It’s pure chaos,” said long-time criminal defense attorney Dawn Projansky. “The whole system is slowing down because now I’m late for court at 26th and California.”

Though several of those gathered outside Grand and Central Tuesday morning grumbled about having to wait in the muggy heat, not all did. Edward Jackson, dressed neatly in a tie and striped shirt, arrived a few minutes late for court. “I’m glad they took their time today — I’m not going to lie to you,” said Jackson, 28, grinning.

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