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updated: 12/29/2011 5:52 PM

Police mad about weekend courthouse closings

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Northwest suburban police chiefs are not happy with Cook County's decision to close its suburban courthouses on weekends and holidays, saying it will cost them more money and staff time.

The Cook County Board quietly made the decision while approving its 2012 budget last month, estimating the county will save $1.9 million next year by consolidating weekend hearings from the Skokie, Rolling Meadows, Maywood, Bridgeview and Markham courthouses at the Cook County criminal courts building at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago.

In a letter to suburban police and officials dated Dec. 13, Chief Judge Timothy Evans explained that the Bridgeview courthouse would end weekend services on Jan. 7 and the Rolling Meadows and Skokie courthouses would follow suit in the next 60 to 90 days.

Many suburban police officials said they were caught off-guard by the decision, and Wheeling Police Chief Bill Benson plans to write a letter protesting the decision, said Deputy Chief John Teevans.

"Chief Benson is going to send a letter out opposing this move by the county. We're not in favor of it," he said. "It's going to be a burden on us ... and it's something we haven't even had a chance to put in our budget."

While the chiefs are sympathetic to the county's debt problem and acknowledge that the suburban courthouses weren't very busy most weekends, they say having their officers drive to weekend bond hearings at the criminal court building at 2600 S. California Ave. in Chicago will be significantly more time-consuming -- and therefore, more expensive -- for their departments.

"Obviously, it's a burden for us. It's going to eat into our resources and our time," said Hoffman Estates Police Chief Michael Hish. "It would have been nice to have some input into it, but everyone's working with tight budgets. Everyone has to do more with less."

What used to be a 15-minute ride to bond court in Rolling Meadows for most Northwest suburban police officers will now be up to an hour each way to "26th and Cal," as that courthouse is known.

Plus, with more cases being heard there, officers will have to spend more time at the courthouse, waiting for their cases to be called.

It could mean higher overtime costs for local police departments, and it could put a wrinkle in scheduling -- as an officer on the overnight shift will now have to drive an hour each way to appear in bond court, or have a day shift officer come in early to cover for that person.

"Or, we might have to hold them (in jail) until we can go to bond court on Monday in Rolling Meadows," Teevans said, noting that the Chicago courthouse is 32 miles each way from Wheeling.

A Cook County Board spokeswoman said keeping the suburban courthouses open on the weekends required a minimum of one judge, one assistant state's attorney, one public defender, three clerks and seven sheriff's deputies -- even though the case loads were often light.

The average number of weekend hearings across the suburban municipal districts was 87 defendants on Saturday and 37 on Sunday, the spokeswoman said.

Teevans said there could have been better compromises -- such as keeping just the Skokie courthouse open for the northern suburbs and Markham for the southern suburbs. Or, maybe there's a way to carpool because so many suburban police departments will be sending people to the Chicago courthouse each weekend.

"It's a sad state of affairs for the county," Teevans said. "The budgetary crunch? Everyone's feeling it."

Arlington Heights Police Capt. Richard Niedrich said his department hasn't yet had a chance to discuss the logistics.

"It's something we're not going to be happy with from a convenience and cost standpoint, but it's something we're going to have to live with," he said.

The closing also means all weddings and civil unions will no longer take place in the suburban courthouses on weekends and holidays, according to the Chief Judge's office.

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