Police leaders say new Ill. law has led to less officer training
A state-wide measure to reduce or waive court fees has cost departments millions of dollars needed for classes, training
Charles Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas
CHICAGO — Call it the law of unintended consequences.
The law in this case -- House Bill 4594, aka The Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act -- was billed as a much-needed check on escalating court fees that can trap lower-income defendants in the criminal justice system simply because they cannot afford to pay, costing them opportunities for jobs, transportation and even housing.
Passed by the General Assembly in May 2018 and signed three months later by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, the law as of July 1, 2019, allows judges to waive or reduce some court fees and fines for defendants based on their incomes.
Now, less than a year later, law enforcement leaders across the state say the measure is costing them millions of dollars needed to put new hires through the police academy, train officers in new skills and keep the rank-and-file updated on the latest changes in the law.
"Classes are being canceled and our mobile training units have been asked to consider plans to shut down due to the funding shortage," said Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff's Association. "This makes our communities less safe and puts officers at risk. It should not come to this. Illinois owes its first responders the training they need to answer the call."
Even after graduating from the police academy, police officers must undergo hundreds of hours of additional training to take on certain assignments, such as homicide investigation or crime-scene processing, or simply keep up with the latest technologies and laws.
Much of that training is provided through the state's 15 "Mobile Training Units" or MTUs. The units' instructors travel to departments within their region to teach courses on everything from crisis intervention to juvenile law.
While the MTUs receive membership dues and tuition, a significant portion of their funding comes from fees imposed in criminal cases. Now, that money is dwindling, even as the state imposes more mandatory training on police officers, law enforcement leaders say.
Tom Reasoner, director of the North East Multi-Regional Training program based in North Aurora, said his group "could stand to lose about $770,000, which would have a great effect on the kind of training we do." NEMRT, one of the state's MTUs, conducts about 760 classes a year for police departments in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Kendall counties.
Since the fee law went into effect last summer, Reasoner said, funding for training statewide has fallen by nearly $2.4 million. NEMRT relies on those fees for more than a third of its budget, he said.
Barring a change, the loss of funding will mean fewer classes and training opportunities for suburban cops.
"If we're not able to run these classes, the officers are not able to get their mandated training," Reasoner said.
And suburban police departments are losing funding to put recent hires through the police academy and for training opportunities.
"We've really relied on organizations like NEMRT to supply training at a reasonable cost," Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko told us Wednesday.
Filenko said he's already met with his village's mayor about adjusting the budget to account for the lost money.
"It's going to affect our ability to purchase new equipment, to replace squad cars," Filenko said. "It has a domino effect."
The Illinois Sheriffs' Association and Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police are asking the General Assembly and Gov. J.B. Pritzker to provide emergency funding to end what they say is a $5 million funding shortfall for police training.
"We expect our officers to be ready to respond to the complexities of society, but we have to provide them with the training and professional development to be prepared," said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the police chiefs association. "Preparedness requires resources, and we think everyone can agree that providing first responders with necessary training should be prioritized this session."