Riverside and Brookfield police chiefs hot about weekend court closures

County says it can handle increase, suburban agencies not so sure

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By BOB UPHUES

Suburban police chiefs are howling about a recent decision by the Cook County Board to close suburban courthouses on weekends and holidays, which will force bond hearings on those days to be conducted at the county's criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California in Chicago.

The change, the chiefs say, will increase overtime costs for their already cash-strapped departments, could take officers off their own streets in order to process prisoners in Chicago and creates unnecessary safety issues and liability for suburban departments.

"Our goal is that we'd like them to rescind that order," said Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, who is president of the West Suburban Chiefs of Police Association. "Just think what it's going to be like to line up all those municipalities when they get down there."

The county began implementing the plan Saturday, when all police agencies in the 5th District, which feed into the Bridgeview courthouse, began processing weekend prisoners for bond court at 26th and California.

The county will phase in the remaining suburban locations in the next 60 to 90 days, according to information provided by the county.

But what rankles the chiefs the most, it appears, was the county's decision to go ahead with the plan without seeking any input from the more than 100 suburban law enforcement agencies affected by it.

"Nobody came to us and said, 'How is this going to impact you,'" said Brookfield Police Chief Steven Stelter. "They said, 'We made the cut, now you work with it.' And now we have to suffer the ramifications of this."

The move is expected to save Cook County an estimated $2 million annually. But Weitzel and other chiefs said that cost is going to be passed on to suburban departments, who are going to see their budgets impacted instead.

"It's a budget issue for us," said Weitzel. "Our 2012 budget is already signed, sealed and delivered."

According to the order, signed on Dec. 13 by Chief Judge Timothy Evans, prisoners destined for bond court will be dropped off on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays between 6 and 7:30 a.m. They will be processed by the county and placed in holding cells in anticipation of their bond hearings. Once the prisoners' paperwork is processed, suburban officers can leave. They do not have to appear at the bond hearing.

It's unclear just how many new prisoners will have to be processed on any given weekend or holiday. Weitzel said he was told the county expects to process between 100 to 120 additional prisoners.

Meanwhile, Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff's Police, told the Landmark that he expects the number to be more like 80 to 100. He said that Bridgeview averages just seven to nine bond hearings on an average weekend.

The county has no plan to increase personnel to handle the intake of more prisoners, nor does the county anticipate the influx to be a problem.

"We do not expect it to be a problem whatsoever," Bilecki said. "We're re-allocating staff already onsite, not hiring additional staff. It's not going to be an issue for us, on our end."

But chiefs do expect it to be a problem on their end. The check-in time from 6 to 7:30 a.m. means that prisoners will have to be transported to Chicago at the time local police shifts normally are changing.

That will mean that either the midnight shift officers will have to transport prisoners downtown or the day shift officers will have to do so. Either way, that's going to mean officers logging overtime.

If there's more than one or two prisoners, it will mean even more overtime being logged.

"It's going to require either paying a guy to come in early to take the prisoners down or have them taken by the midnight shift people," said North Riverside Police Chief Anthony Garvey. "It will affect manpower and will take overtime costs to cover the shifts here in the village."

Just how much overtime is unclear at this point, since there's no track record. But Weitzel thinks it could be as much as three or four hours once all agencies are funneling into the central courthouse.

"It'll be at least three hours of overtime," said Weitzel. There'll be 30 to 40 minutes of transport, then you have to drop off the prisoners, drop off the paperwork, get logged in and drive back.

"The county hasn't told us yet how the processing is going to work out. My opinion is it's going to be quite confusing," Weitzel said.

Weitzel said that some chiefs have already said they may try to avoid the weekend bond court downtown and try to house prisoners until Monday morning, when they can be taken to the suburban courthouses.

While that's an option, it, too, comes with a cost, said Weitzel. There is the cost of feeding and housing prisoners and there's potential added cost if prisoners on weekend stays, particularly drug-dependent prisoners, decide they need to go to the hospital. Any trip to the emergency room will require an officer to stand guard, taking manpower off the streets.

"Prisoners really know how to play the game," said Weitzel.

Longer stays in the local lockup also increase liability for departments if prisoners become suicidal.

"These lockups are meant for short, overnight stays," said Weitzel.

Stelter said that the county could have at least allowed suburban departments to bring in prisoners immediately after they're processed locally instead of herding all agencies into one morning call.

"If they're going to do this, allow us to take prisoners there 24 hours a day," said Stelter. "Why not take them there at 2 a.m., drop them off and ease the burden on everyone."

Asked about that option, Bilecki said the decision was the county board's. And he stressed that the downtown processing center was used to handling large numbers of prisoners.

"As far as being able to handle it, on a regular work day, we process hundreds of detainees," Bilecki said. "We've processed as many as 300 a day on a busy day."

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