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Q&A: New McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane says staffing challenges are his top priority

McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane
Ryan Denham
New McLean County Sheriff Matt Lane, who was sworn in earlier this month.

McLean County's newly elected sheriff, Matt Lane, is about two weeks into his new job. But he's not new to the department, where he's spent the past 25 years in many different roles.

In this interview with WGLT, Lane says his biggest priority right now is recruiting and retaining employees. And in one instance, that means literally taking a load off his deputies.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: You’re about a week into the new job. After about 25 years with the sheriff’s department, how does it feel to officially be Sheriff Lane?

Lane: It feels very good. I take a lot of pride in this office. And it's an honor to be the sheriff of this county.

What are you going to be your top priorities here in the first year?

I think the biggest priority we have right now is staffing needs. We're working on recruiting. I need a lot of people (to work) in the jail. A lot of correctional officers are needed. And there are a few openings for deputy right now too. We're testing for both positions nonstop. You don't have to wait anymore. We’ve kind of fast track that to try to make it easier. We're trying to be flexible with people on testing dates.

How many positions in the jail do you have to fill?

I think right now it's 15. That is high. That is probably close to the highest, if not the highest, we've ever been down in Corrections.

What does that mean for the folks who are still here?

It affects them with a lot of overtime. A good portion of our Corrections staff is working 12 if not 16 hours a day. Just to make sure we have enough staff to fill the positions we have to have to supervise the jail.

Other than hiring, what can you do as the new sheriff to protect morale and to make sure that people don't burn out?

I'm working on a few ideas for the jail. For patrol, we are going to get some load-bearing vests for the deputies. It takes a lot of weight off of their midsection and stress on hips and knees, to equal out some things, and they can put different items on their vest instead of their belt line. And that's been a request for some time, and I've decided that we're going to do that.

We're changing the grooming policy to allow beards that are professional and that look good.

Small things that don't require a lot of investment that we can do to make things better.

Did the new contract that went into effect for the union representing a sheriff's deputies – which was approved by the county board last April – has that made a difference in your ability to recruit and retain deputies?

It actually has. We have we have a few “lateral” deputies. They came from other departments, whether it be city or county, a few from out of state, that we've hired on. And we can we can now hire them on at a higher rate of pay. So if they have two years’ experience, we can start them on a two-year deputy pay scale. If they have three and four and five, and it tops out at five. So we've had a few officers take advantage of that and come to us. That program’s working out very well.

We would like to see more of that. We would like to get more experienced people in here. It cuts down on training time. They have experiences and certifications sometimes that our people don't all have. It helps out a lot.

Are the correctional officers at the jail in the same union as the sheriff’s deputies?

No, they are they are a totally separate union. But they are they do have the same Lodge number. So there is Lodge 176 deputies union, and there's Lodge 176 corrections union. Both FOP.

Have you made or do you expect you’ll have to make any kind of changes to how jail correctional officers are compensated in hopes of attracting and keeping them?

We're currently under negotiations with Corrections (union) right now. I don't know how much I can speak to it; I came in late on jail on Corrections contract negotiations, but I just had a meeting about that today. I think the way it's headed right now is to an arbitrator. It would be nice to avoid that. But it's being worked out.

A few weeks ago, then-Sheriff Jon Sandage announced that a correctional officer at the jail had been accused of workers’ compensation fraud. And he said that an in-depth look was underway at workers’ comp claims involving other current and former employees. Where do things stand with that review?

Right now, that's in its infancy. These investigations are taken very seriously. And they're very, very time consuming. And with the transitions and the SAFE-T Act coming, we're going through a whole policy and procedure, kind of an audit, in rewriting some things. For everything we have in policy right now. That's a huge project.

Sandage made it sound like there was concern that this instance of alleged fraud was not a one-time, one-employee situation … that there were concerns about others. Is that still the thinking?

I think what we're doing is we're trying to protect this county from fraudulent claims. And we were going to double check on things, to make sure that that there's nothing inappropriate that has been claimed and not been true. Because it costs taxpayer a lot of money for those claims. And we're trying to protect that, and not let that happen.

During the early parts of your campaign, something you said was that it’s “all about trust.” That it’s critical for your department to have the trust of the communities that it serves. How do you achieve that?

You do things like you investigate fraud by your own people, and you do it fairly. And you do it like you would any other investigation. I think the actions of our staff both on the jail side and law enforcement side every day builds the trust of the people.

A lot of people don't hear about things that happen every day. If a shot’s not fired anymore, it doesn't get reported. In my first week, we've had a fatal accident. I had an accident investigation team that was dispatched out there that are working very hard to pinpoint exactly what happened. And each time we succeed is just building a building block for that trust.

How are things going with the rollout of body cameras for your deputies?

Very well, actually. There was a lot of hard work that went into that. Lt. Albee is in charge of that program now. Sheriff Sandage had originally assigned me to do it, look into it and make the right purchase or the right equipment. But over the last six months or so, Lt. Albee really ran with it and tweaked the system to meet our needs. We had to write policy and procedure for that and get it out to our guys. But it's working very well so far.

All deputies out in the field have them now?

Yes, they do.

As of when?

Late October, early November.

Let's turn to the McLean County jail, where a nearly $40 million expansion happened about four years ago. I want to ask specifically about the Mental Health Unit. How are things going into the Mental Health Unit these days?

I think we've got another counselor coming on board soon. I think it's going well. And I've asked that question to my staff in there.

We've got a new health care provider in our jail now, too. We used to have in-house nurses; now we have a company that does that, an outside company. And it seems to be a little more efficient. To get medication on time to people is a big thing, in a timely manner, and to monitor them, and we're doing the best we can.

I would like to do more. A lot of what I like to do depends on our staffing levels. And right now we're just too low right now to do some of the things I would like to do.

In the jail overall, are you looking at -- or do you favor -- any sort of expansion of inmates’ communications with families?

I need to be more fluent on what their options are. The old system was a stamp. And now, it's much less … half the cost of a stamp to send an email. I think that's pretty reasonable. It's an outside company that does it. I don't determine those charges. But they have a lot … those tablets that we have, there's educational things that can be done on those. There's a library of law, I think, that you can access on those. There's a lot offered with that system for a minimal cost, in my opinion.

Let’s talk about the SAFE-T Act. And I will keep in mind that there is some pending litigation between this county and the Pritzker administration on the SAFE-T Act. But as of today, how do you expect the Pretrial Fairness Act (part of the SAFE-T Act) to impact jail operations come Jan. 1?

Well, it's twofold. If this law goes into effect on Jan. 1, I think there will be less people coming to jail. It's my understanding that if someone that was arrested under the old system wants to be treated as if they were under the new, they have to file a petition to the court to have their case heard. With the trailer bill, and the way I understand it, is it's moved from right away immediately to within 60 to 90 days. That will lighten the load, but it will make the exit from the jail a little bit slower.

So I see that over the first month or two, it will dwindle down. And then I think eventually, it will be back to where it's at today. But that's just my personal opinion. Just from experience, I think it'll be back. I think people that don't show up for court now won't show up for court under the Pretrial Fairness Act in that, and that that's only going to happen so many times before they're held until their case is complete.

With your staffing situation at the jail, being short-staffed, is having slightly fewer inmates going to help that situation?

Yeah, temporarily. And it will give us a chance to hire. And I have to give a lot of credit to our staff for the effort they've put into hiring so far. They bend over backwards to try to accommodate and get good candidates in here.

But it is challenging. And it's something it's not an easy job. And it takes a special person. And I know there are more out there. We just need to get their application.

What kind of person is well suited for that work?

The biggest thing is being a good listener. There's a lot of a lot of talk that goes on in the jail, whether it's complaints or questions. Somebody who can stay calm in stressful situations, that doesn’t get rattled easy. The people we have up there are generally good people, and they want to listen, they want to help, and they also take into consideration their job is to keep that facility secure. You do need somebody firm but fair.

As you were sworn in, so were new McLean County Board members. How do you feel about county board involvement and oversight of jail operations? Your predecessor and some Democrats on the board clashed a little bit over that question.

I'm not concerned. I want to give them the respect and the acknowledgement of their position. I hope they do the same for me.

It all boils down to communication, and I think that if they have a question about something going on in the jail or something they've heard or something they don't like that's been done in the past, and they approach me about it, we can work something out. I can either explain or find out the answer and get it to them. And I think that I'm hoping that works well.

There are a lot of new people on the county board, and I'd really like to meet with each one of them individually, answer their questions for either law enforcement or the jail side. And keep them informed, I think, is probably half the battle. Let them know what's going on and why.

But day-to-day operations is left to the sheriff by statute. And that's what I'm trying to do is being in control of those day-to-day operations, because it is a detention facility. It’s a jail. So we have certain rules we have to follow.

So I don't think it'll be an issue. I'm not concerned. I think that everybody that has been elected to that position and myself are all out for the same thing. It's just, how do we get there? And if we communicate well, we'll get to that goal.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.