Law enforcement officials say a recent state law to make court fines and fees fair has unfairly punished police departments.
Ticket revenue has fallen. Police agencies use that money to pick up part of the cost of mandated training. Police agencies say a lack of training could make communities less safe.
The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board started telling police departments late last year it couldn't pay for academy training all new officers must complete or for ongoing training.
The training and standards board has seen a $5 million drop in revenue since last summer. That's when a new Illinois law took effect changing how court fines and fees are assessed to lessen the burden on low- and moderate-income people.
Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath had hoped to hire as many as 16 new officers this year. Academy training costs nearly $7,000 per officer. Donath said he will have to find an extra $100,000, somewhere.
“I’m not sure how we are going to do it yet,” Donath said. “We have a little bit of time left this year, but it’s going to be a hurdle we are going to have to get over one way or another.”
Donath is not alone.
Police departments across the state are dealing with the unintended consequences of the new fines and fees law.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage estimates his department will have to spend an additional $70,000 for state-mandated training this year. Sandage had hoped the County Board would set aside new revenue from the recreational marijuana sales tax. Instead, the board put about a third of that money to mental health services.
Sandage said he supports mental health assistance, but “bottom line is, we have to have the officers on the streets and the corrections officers in the jail to deal with these issues before we can provide these services.”
“There’s several options and considerations that are in play,” Gleason said. “It definitely is a high priority now that it has reached this point.”
For now, the board has told police departments to cover the cost - and they will reimburse them later.
But Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath said departments don't know when or how much training money they will get back.
“With that being an unexpected thing, we have to start paying that and put that in our budget, that we didn’t have before,” Donath said, adding he’s not sure what percentage of the costs the ILETSB will reimburse.
Some chiefs and sheriffs are not optimistic. Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner says his department recently got a $21,000 academy training bill for three officers and will be sending two more officers in May. Bleichner said he expects his department will have to eat at least half that cost.
“We’ve been told to expected somewhere in the 50% range, if they have any reimbursements at all,” Bleichner said. “There’s no guarantees.”
The training and standards board also pays for much of the ongoing training officers must take. There's no indication when that funding will come back. Police are on their own.
Bleichner said he is trying to find other options for the training officers have typically received at Heartland Community College. He said the most viable alternative appears to be online training.
“It’s not an ideal fix, but it does serve in the place of some of those actual classroom training sessions that we just can’t have,” Bleichner said.
Some in the police training business say online courses don't cut it.
Bob Siron coordinates the Mobile Team Unit based at Heartland Community College that offers state mandated training for 36 police agencies in McLean, Livingston, Ford and Iroquois counties. It's one of 16 regional training centers in Illinois.
“More than a safety risk, it would be a liability risk,” Siron said.
Siron said you can't duplicate classroom education and real-life scenarios officers encounter by taking an online course.
“I was a police officer for a long time. I know sitting in front of a computer, a class that’s supposed to take me four hours might take me 30 minutes,” Siron said. “I can go through screens pretty fast and check the boxes and I’m done. I’m not saying people are doing it, but it happens.”
Siron said the mobile team unit at Heartland has canceled about half its classes. It can only continue classes that get federal funding or the ones local police teach. That includes active shooter training, field sobriety testing, and personal defense.
But training for crime scene investigations, lead homicide investigations, mental health de-escalation, and ethics are off limits until further notice.
Traditionally, those who make government budgets don't shortchange public safety spending. Siron said that's why he's surprised this issue hasn't been resolved.
“Typically law enforcement is toward the forefront when it comes to an issue and they know they need the funding, somebody steps up and makes sure the funding is available,” Siron said. “This time, I don’t know if they were caught off guard.”
Siron said he's not sure when the issue will resolve.
The Illinois Sheriff's Association and Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police want state lawmakers to find the money. State Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, has proposed emergency funding.
Normal's Rick Bleichner and other police chiefs say they can get by for a bit without big budget cuts or reallocation.
“It’s relatively short-lived right now, but if this continues for the next month or heaven forbid into next year, it will create a lot larger impact not only on our agency but on all (police) agencies in Illinois.”
The full impact is not yet clear, but Bloomington City Manager and training board head Tim Gleason said it does negatively impact public safety in communities.
“(I) wish we weren’t dealing with this at all, but as a municipality or as a county we just have to find a way to keep staffing levels as they should be,” Gleason conceded.
Not only has the existing mandated training lost funding, the trend is to demand more training. The Illinois legislature has imposed 11 new police training requirements since 2016.
Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said the state should remove much of the training it requires for downstate police departments. He said downstate police face different situations than those in the Chicago area.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not include emergency funding for police training in his annual budget proposal.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect Illinois' 2018 court fines and fees law.
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