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Central Illinois Officers Feel Stress Of Civil Unrest

Willie Holton Halbert speaks
Ryan Denham
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage, left, then-Bloomington Chief Dan Donath, and Normal Chief Rick Bleichner with NAACP second vice president Willie Holton Halbert at an event in June.

Local police departments are feeling the heat from civil unrest in cities where police-involved deaths have sparked violent protests, according to McLean County law enforcement leaders.

“It’s difficult when people paint officers with a broad stroke. We’re not perfect, but we’re not them,” recently-retired Bloomington police chief Dan Donath said of officers involved in controversial deaths in other states.

Heightened tension between police and the communities they serve has hampered dialogue, said Donath.

“Some organizations want to talk at me and not with me,” he said.

Comments from some McLean County Sheriff’s Department staff reflect their frustration with the negative social climate, said McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage.

“Lately, I’m hearing, 'I can’t wait to be eligible to retire,'" said Sandage. “That’s not something I heard before.”

Jail staff also have faced the challenge of keeping COVID-19 from spreading within the facility.

Three inmates and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, said the sheriff, but none required hospitalization. Staff also dealt with an uptick in the jail population due in part to the state’s moratorium on accepting newly-sentenced inmates to prisons during the pandemic.

Protests outside the Law and Justice Center sponsored by Black Lives Matter strained department resources and caused inmate unrest, said Sandage.

“We’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on overtime hours to protect the Law and Justice Center,” said Sandage.

The growing protests since the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota have shaken the trust many people have in law enforcement, said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Police officers and chiefs feel like they are under siege, being beat up for reasons that aren’t their fault. I’m also hearing morale is really down and that’s unfortunate,” said Wojcicki.

Police recognize the impact Floyd’s death and other police-involved deaths have on local communities, said Wojcicki.

“At the local level, we hear people say they have no problems with the police, but they’re afraid because of what they saw on TV last night,” said Wojcicki.

Retirements reported at police departments in Illinois, including the Twin Cities and the county, have not reached levels seen in cities like Chicago and New York. Most officers leaving local departments are following retirement plans made before the protests, said local law enforcement officials.

The ability to hire future officers to replace retirees is uncertain, according to former DeWitt County Sheriff Jerod Shofner, who works as a training instructor at the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center in Decatur.

Lower numbers of people are entering the police and corrections field, said Shofner. The 89 cadets currently enrolled in classes for both disciplines is below previous years. He said they will be in high demand as agencies compete for new officers.

Don speaks at podium
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Cutbacks in police budgets could hamper the prosecution of criminal cases, said McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp.

Calls from Black Lives Matter to “defund” police departments could have dangerous consequences, added Shofner, as the pool of police candidates shrinks at a time the public is demanding more accountability for how police do their job.

“People assume training is insufficient, but that’s not true. What you’re seeing is an extremely small percentage of people who disregarded their training and the policies of their agencies,” said the former sheriff.

In times of crisis, police draw on their experience and training, said Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner.

When a crowd of looters stormed the doors of Target in Normal in May, Bleichner opted for a measured response, keeping officers from openly engaging with protesters. Despite some criticism, Bleichner stands by the decision.

“I got it from both sides,” said the chief, as some people supported the response while others criticized police.

“I knew it would take a significant force” to control the rampage and looting. “Then I would be answering the question of why we used that force,” said Bleichner.

The store was left in shambles as looters smashed their way inside and walked away with electronics and other items.

So far, more than 40 people have been charged in the lootings that resulted in injuries to officers, including the police chief, and damage to squad cars.

In the wake of the May incident, NPD command staff checked on officers' well-being, said Bleichner. As a result of a survey of officers, the town has added a financial planning program for police with concerns for the financial security of their families, he said.

The demand for cuts in police budgets comes on the heels of lower revenue for most cities struggling to keep businesses--the source of local sales tax dollars--open during the pandemic. The call to shift police money to social service programs creates more problems than it solves, said Sandage.

“I don’t disagree that we need more money for social services, but the money should not be taken away from police,” he said, adding McLean County is fortunate to have a plethora of mental health services, including a residential crisis stabilization center and a county-owned emergency crisis center.

And, cutbacks in police budgets could hamper the prosecution of criminal cases, said McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp, who pointed to the police work on the 2019 Rica Rountree criminal case.

Normal police officers worked around the clock developing critical evidence during the early stages of their investigation into the beating death of the 8-year-old, said Knapp.

“But for that evidence, we would not have been able to secure a conviction” against Cynthia Baker, the girlfriend of the child’s father, said Knapp. Jurors viewed multiple videos from Baker’s phone showing disturbing abuse of the child by Baker.

So far in 2020, McLean County juries have returned guilty verdicts in five of 11 pending murder cases.

“If law enforcement had fewer resources, I’m not sure we would be able to do that,” said Knapp.

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Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.