McLean County Deputies' Pay Dispute Underscores Police Hiring Challenges
McLean County sheriff's deputies are in a contract dispute with the county. An attorney for the union says morale is low, turnover is high and pay isn't sufficient.
Meanwhile, some in law enforcement wonder if perceptions about police have turned people away from a career behind the badge.
McLean County sheriff's deputies have launched a public campaign for better pay and benefits with yard signs along the road and on social media.
Close to 45 deputies have been working without a contract since the end of last year.
The union and county administration have met once with a federal mediator, but could not come to an agreement.
James Daniels, the attorney for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 176, said in the last five years, 45 McLean County corrections officers have left or been fired, and nine others retired. Patrol officers also have dealt with challenges.
“Morale is terrible in both units due to on-the-job stress, but in the jail especially the turnover is extremely high and it is very hard in both units to hire qualified applicants,” Daniels said in an email.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage took exception to Daniels' characterization.
"To throw that in there in negotiations I don't agree with," Sandage said. "I don't know who Mr. Daniels is talking to, but to characterize morale as terrible is not the sentiment that I'm getting from the union president."
FOP Lodge 176 President Jordan Krone declined an interview, but said morale among deputies is "difficult" now. He said that's because of the challenges law enforcement face in general, but he added the union has a good working relationship with the sheriff's and county administration. He acknowledged higher pay would likely improve morale.
Many deputies have taken other police jobs that pay better. The union wants three main concessions from the county in a new contract. First, the FOP says a fair salary would keep more officers from leaving.
Sandage said that turnover cost is real.
“It costs more money when you have to rehire and retrain deputies,” Sandage said. “We’ve lost some very good deputies that we’ve paid for all the training for ... and they go on and have very successful careers at other agencies.”
McLean County sheriff's deputies start at about $54,500 annually. That's less than what first-time officers at Bloomington, Normal and Illinois State Police make.
The last pay raise deputies got was 2.75% at the end of 2019. Krone noted that's less than increases in the cost of living. The latest data from the Consumer Price Index puts that at 5%.
“The union is currently requesting a wage increase of significantly less than that,” said Krone.
The union also wants more financial incentives for higher education and physical education, saying it would help the county recruit and keep higher-caliber deputies.
The union also wants officers to be able to drive their squad cars home each night. They say it would give sheriff's police more visibility in the communities they serve and cut costs and response times because officers could dispatch straight from home.
McLean County interim administrator Cassy Taylor said the county doesn't have enough squad cars for each officer to drive one home, so deputies have to share them.
Taylor said it comes down to money. “Many of the things that have been brought forward, we have constraints financially to be able to meet all of the requests,” she said.
Sandage acknowledged personal squad cars would save the county money in the long run, but noted the county would have to buy and fully equip up to 30 vehicles. That would cost more than $1 million and Sandage said there’s no room in his budget for that. He would need additional funding from the McLean County Board.
“I understand the deputies’ side and I understand the county’s side as far as the tax levy and the tax rates,” Sandage said. “It’s a tough predicament.”
Police officer recruitment and retention is not just a challenge for the McLean County Sheriff's Office. Even some departments that pay better are having a hard time finding people who want a career in law enforcement.
The Bloomington Police Department is actively recruiting new officers. It's especially looking for officers they can hire away from other departments because most of their training is already done.
BPD touts its starting salary of nearly $67,000, one of the highest in the area.
Assistant Chief Chad Wamsley oversees hiring for BPD. He said applications are down sharply this year, adding the department hopes to send four or five candidates for police academy training in August. The department has eight open positions.
With police under closer scrutiny following the murder of George Floyd and other acts of police brutality in the last year, Wamsley said it's possible perceptions about being a cop have changed based on what he calls a “few bad apples.”
“I think a lot of the stuff that comes out in the media with some of the high-profile cases that have happened recently, I think it’s made some people be a little nervous or apprehensive to want to get into this profession,” he said.
Eric Klingele is an assistant police chief in Normal. He's been in law enforcement for 36 years. He has seen the ups and downs of public sentiment toward the men and women in blue.
Klingele started in law enforcement with the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1980s. He was on the force when four officers brutally beat Rodney King. Klingele remembers when those officers were acquitted and the days of rioting that followed.
“I figured it could be a long night, and it was,” Klingele recalled. “If you remember, it was a very long several nights.”
Klingele said attitudes toward police improved after the 9/11 attacks when many first responders died while trying to save others.
Today, sentiment toward law enforcement is fairly divided, not just along racial and political lines. Americans generally trust law enforcement, but they also support many reforms intended to make police more accountable, such as mandatory body cameras, an end to qualified immunity and racial profiling, and bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants.
A majority of Americans also want to see some police resources shifted to other first responders who could handle mental health and addiction-related calls.
Klingele resists talk of defunding police, hoping that doesn't discourage anyone from pursuing a career in law enforcement.
“Law enforcement has changed and reformed every year I have been involved in it and it’s usually a good thing,” Klingele said. “We’re no different than anybody else. We learn from our mistakes and we adapt to that.”
And police may have to adapt more as communities reimagine the role law enforcement should play in keeping them safe.
Klingele added the Normal Police Department has had a surprisingly good year for police applicants. He said the department received close to 100 applicants to fill vacancies this year.