Views differ on job description in Cook sheriff's race

February 26, 2014

AP/File
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

Incumbent Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has much more money and name recognition than any of his three challengers for the March 18 Democratic primary. The contest has not been getting much attention.

But the race is underscoring how much the sheriff’s job has changed since Dart took office in 2006.

On a recent chilly Monday morning, challenger Bill Evans greeted shivering commuters at the 95th Street & Dan Ryan ‘L’ stop, handing out campaign literature. One of his palm cards features a photo of a younger, shirtless Evans, from his days as a professional boxer.

Evans is a compact, energetic guy who is now fighting Dart for the sheriff’s job in next month’s primary. Like the other two challengers, Evans is pitching himself as a lawman -- a 23-year veteran of the Cook County Sheriff’s police, who now works the graveyard shift as a lieutenant.

Evans walked over to some uniformed Chicago cops patrolling the train station. They are members of a group he sees as a key potential support base, especially after nabbing the endorsement of Chicago’s police union in January.

“Hopefully you guys consider me,” Evans told the officers. “Spread it around a little bit. We gotta stick together.”

Evans admits he feels a bit like a duck out of water having to campaign for a job in law enforcement.

And that is a unique thing about the sheriff’s post. It’s a law enforcement job that requires a politician’s savvy to get. Dart was won his 2006 election comfortably, after serving as a top aide to his predecessor, Democrat Michael Sheahan. Dart was handily re-elected in 2010.

He now faces his most crowded primary in years. In addition to Evans, Dart is being challenged by longtime Cook County Sheriff’s police officer Sylvester Baker, the only African-American in the race; and Tadeusz “Ted” Palka, a former deputy sheriff.

(Palka did not respond to an interview request from WBEZ.)

Dart’s office runs a county jail long troubled with overcrowding, provides security for courtrooms, and patrols parts of the county.

But Dart has expanded the job description during his two terms in office. And candidates such as Evans say that raises questions about what the job should be, and what type of person is most suited to it: a politician or a cop.

“We have a colossal mess in our county jail,” Evans said. “We have understaffing issues, we have, uh, supervision issues...and yet this sheriff wants to take on even more responsibilities that have nothing to do with his office.”

For example, Evans and other candidates have criticized Dart’s latest effort to to act as a corruption watchdog for some of Chicago’s south suburbs, on top of his other duties.

And they suggest his much-publicized re-investigation of the John Wayne Gacy murders should have been a low priority for an office with so many responsibilities, even if it was a high-profile case.

But Dart defends those moves, saying he is tired of public officials who just do the bare minimum.

“I looked as this as a mandate to get very involved with the criminal justice system, not just to sit here and say, ‘Okay, here’s your blanket, here’s your bologna sandwich, there’s your cell,’” Dart told WBEZ in a recent interview. “Instead to look at it and say, ‘Okay, well why are all these people flooding into the jail?’”

So Dart says he focuses on treatment, not just lockup.

For example, he has started to connect prostitutes with social services. And after a federal court order, his office has added mental health services for the large portion of inmates at the jail who self-identify as mentally ill.

Dart maintains his different approach to the job has not taken away from his other duties. But since taking office, there has been an uptick in how often sheriff’s police lend help to other jurisdictions.

Between 2007 and 2011, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office assisted other agencies an average of 8,477 times a year, according to data provided by the sheriff. Between 2012 and 2013, the average jumped to 10,700.

His approach highlights what challenger Baker says is a problem with Dart: “He’s never been a law enforcement professional...I say that because...you have a different philosophy when you have never actually been in law enforcement.”

Baker spent more than two decades as a Cook County Sheriff’s officer, and he wants a tighter focus on a county-wide policing strategy aimed at reducing crime.

But Dart’s background might be good for Cook County, said John Maki, who heads a non-partisan prison watchdog group called The John Howard Association.

Even though Dart is not a cop, Maki says the sheriff has used his politicians’ instinct to bring media attention to some of the big problems facing the criminal justice system.

“The thing that I’ve been impressed with is how he’s used his office to kinda shine light on problems that the jail are simply not equipped to deal with -- poverty, mental illness,” Maki said.

But Maki pointed out that  the Cook County Jail is still being watched by a federal monitor,in large part because of longstanding overcrowding. The jail for decades has been under the eyes of the feds, on grounds of violating inmates’ constitutional rights with unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

The monitors say conditions have improved a lot under Dart.

But they say overcrowding is still a problem because public officials are not working together to solve it.

“In the absence of a collaborative effort, and goodwill among stakeholders to address crowding, and related dysfunction in the courts, probation, and pretrial services, more time has passed, crowding has increased, and there is no solution in sight,” wrote federal monitor Susan W. McCampbell in December.

Experts say this is emblematic of a larger challenge facing the Cook County sheriff. While he may control the workings of the jail, he has little control over how many people are arrested and detained, how much money goes into his budget, or how court records are kept.

Those fall under the purview of other elected officials, such as County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, with whom Dart has had public clashes.

He acknowledges he is sometimes impatient with the way his fellow public officers handle their jobs.

“Do I not play well with others at times? That is correct,” Dart said. “But I usually feel pretty confident that’s after I’ve exhausted reasonable discussions with people and, when it’s become clear to me that [they think] the issue is just ‘too difficult to address, so it’s just better if we just forget about it’ -- and I’m not into forgetting about it.”

Dart has not been campaigning much before the March 18 primary.

He has got way more money than his opponents -- and right now, he has no Republican challenger in the general election, though the GOP has the option to fill that vacant ballot slot after the primary.

Besides, Dart says, he just has too much stuff to do at the Sheriff’s Office.

Alex Keefe is a political reporter at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.