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posted: 1/24/2013 9:28 AM

Editorial: Two lessons from a crisis of confidence

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Schaumburg Police Chief Brian Howerton could not have been more correct when he told the Daily Herald Editorial Board on Tuesday that the arrests of three Schaumburg detectives on drug charges "is not just an internal matter." In fact, they're not just a Schaumburg matter, either.

They are a reminder, if nothing else, to every suburban town and police department of the need for strict practices for thoroughly monitoring the work of employees who operate with an unusually high level of the department's trust and for the kind of community relationship that can enable a department to operate with the necessarily high level of the public's trust.

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Early indications suggest that, on the first point, Schaumburg had the kinds of supervisory and record-keeping systems in place that most departments use and find successful. On the latter, the jury may be out for some time, but again the early indications suggest the village recognizes its responsibilities to interact directly and openly with the community at large.

Neither of these observations should absolve the village of the duty to re-evaluate its police department practices and policies. Schaumburg should indeed investigate carefully whether or how any trusted officer could acquire and sell drugs on department time. Howerton and Village Manager Ken Fritz insist they are doing that. But it's also true that almost no evidence-management system can stay the hand of individuals bent on breaking the law. Other towns may well look at Schaumburg with the famous reflection that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Schaumburg can help its neighbors, not to mention its own citizens, with an aggressive transparency that, first, demonstrates the effectiveness of the procedures it has in place and, second, encourages direct interactions with the community.

It is a sad commentary, demonstrated by more than a decade of our own "Hidden Scourge" reporting on drug use, that the fight against drugs in the suburbs requires diverse strategies and strong dedication by local authorities. It requires independent activities by local police in addition to coordinated actions with regional, state and federal agencies.

By their nature, such efforts can afford a vast degree of autonomy to individual detectives, and no one likes to consider that officers entrusted with such autonomy require special supervision. Indeed, one of the most unfortunate effects of the three Schaumburg officers' arrests, if what prosecutors in DuPage County say is true, is the unfair pall they cast over the vast majority of cops in their own department and around the suburbs who do a difficult and dangerous job with honor and dedication.

Whatever the results of Schaumburg's internal self-evaluation in the wake of these arrests, it's important the effort be conducted thoroughly but swiftly, and that the results be discussed openly. So far, that seems to be the village's intent. Sticking to that approach will confirm the faith the community puts in its police and provide an important object lesson for some other town that, by the capricious grace of human nature, may one day face its own crisis of public confidence.

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