Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel has asked the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court to suspend bond hearings in most cases and allow supervising police officers to issue personal recognizance bonds to low-level offenders in order limit the amount of time prisoners interact with police.

Last month, Weitzel wrote to Chief Judge Timothy Evans and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx with the request, calling the matter “urgent.” As of late last week, Weitzel said he hadn’t heard back from the chief judge.

“No one is listening to the concerns of law enforcement having to deal with these individuals, book them, transport them in our squad cars, drop them off at bond court, and, at times, they may be rejected if they show signs of illness,” said Weitzel in an email. 

“Then it is the police officer’s responsibility to find a hospital to take them to, get them medically cleared by emergency room personnel and then bring them back to the next bond hearing. This is ridiculous and absolutely opens police officers to this contagious disease.”

Weitzel argued that other agencies in the criminal justice system, from the courts, state’s attorney’s office and public defender have issued directives to limit their contact with prisoners who potentially are infected with the novel coronavirus.

Foxx has directed her assistant state’s attorneys to not report to the police stations for felony review, unless the matter is extremely serious and only if police take measures to guarantee their safety, said Weitzel.

Cook County Sheriff’s Police who interact with prisoners at the courthouses are also directed to prohibit entry to bond court to anyone displaying flu-like symptoms or claiming to have them, according to Weitzel.

Those prisoners then must be taken by a police officer to a hospital, where emergency room waits have skyrocketed, and wait with them before getting medically cleared and then returning them to bond court, possibly after having to house them again in the local lockup another night.

“This is not helping police,” said Weitzel in a phone interview last week. “Officers are dealing with prisoners who could be contagious, transporting them in their squad cars and having to house and feed them. … I’m open to any alternative.”

In his letter to Evans and Foxx, Weitzel asked that police command staff be given the latitude to give personal recognizance bonds to offenders arrested for most offenses. He suggested that offenses exempt from that procedure include murder, attempted murder, criminal sexual assault and kidnapping.

“Those charges would have to be reviewed by the State’s Attorney’s Office and go to bond court,” Weitzel wrote in his letter. “These are extraordinary times and we need to use extraordinary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, so I ask that you take this under immediate review and give the police chiefs in Cook County guidance immediately. This issue is far beyond me as the police chief in Riverside.”

While he hasn’t heard back from the chief judge, Weitzel said he did receive a call from Cheryl D. Ingram, presiding judge of the Cook County Circuit Court’s Fourth District, which operates out of the Maybrook courthouse.

Ingram suggested the possibility of using the video conference app Zoom to hold bond hearings virtually, with prisoners attending the hearing from the local lockup.

While Weitzel said that might be an improvement, the setup got a lukewarm response from North Riverside Police Chief Carlos Garcia, whose police station serves as the central lockup for villages belonging to West Central Consolidated Dispatch (WC3), including Riverside, North Riverside, Brookfield and McCook.

“The time constrictions are the same and there are manpower issues,” Garcia said. “You still need a guy to conduct the hearing in the lockup, you still have to transport paperwork to Maybrook and a [prisoner] to Cook County Jail. “I don’t know if it’s a solution, because we’re having to hold a prisoner a little longer.”

With Circuit Court judges over the past four years opting to allow low-level and some felony-level offenders to remain free on personal recognizance bonds while awaiting trial, Weitzel said allowing police commanders the temporary ability to make those judgement calls made sense.

“I am in no way asking for carte blanche,” Weitzel said. “Let’s start to execute some commonsense issues and protections for police officers, who are on the front line of this battle.”