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updated: 3/13/2014 5:47 PM

Dart's challengers says sheriff's department morale is low

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Experience is the word in the race for the Democratic nomination for Cook County Sheriff.

Sheriff Tom Dart has run the department for eight years, but his three opponents all say the office needs a leader with hands-on experience in law enforcement.

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The primary election is Tuesday, March 18.

All three challengers have worked decades in the Cook County Sheriff's Department. Bill Evans is currently a lieutenant with 23 years' experience. Sylvester Baker and Ted Palka retired with about 21 and 30 years, respectively.

Dart, on the other hand, comes from a legal and political background. He was a prosecutor before serving in the state legislature, and then was chief of staff to former Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan for three years. He was elected sheriff in 2006 after Sheahan's retirement.

The most visible criticisms of Dart concern conditions at Cook County Jail, which is chronically overcrowded and has been under federal oversight since 1980.

The MacArthur Legal Clinic at Northwestern University recently filed a lawsuit with 88 affidavits claiming "sadistic violence and brutality" at the jail.

Dart says the suit is baseless.

A federal court monitor issues semiannual reports about the county jail, and Dart has said overcrowding has declined so much he expects the department to finally get out from under the decades-long court order.

His opponents complain Dart is a media darling whose initiatives get wide play while his failings are not investigated.

Dart has gotten national attention for advocating mental health treatment, rather than incarceration, for mentally ill people in the jail. On the sheriff's official website he says that 25-30 percent of inmates suffer from mental illness, and he posts on a daily basis the percentage of new inmates who say they have a mental illness.

Besides reducing the jail population, Evans and Baker say they would put more deputies on the street by cutting the department's upper brass.

Evans and Baker both say morale is low among rank and file in both the police division and the jail division.

"I've never seen (morale) this bad in the 23 years I've been here," said Evans. "The men and women on the streets do a wonderful job. I'm out there with them every night."

Dart says he needs smart assistants to manage 7,000 employees and a $450 million budget, but adds he has trimmed the number of supervisors.

They also criticize some of Dart's initiatives, like a task force to end dog fighting, as being publicly popular but essentially a waste of time.

Evans, who has a master's degree in criminal justice, worked for seven years with the gang crimes unit and 16 years on SWAT teams, including 750 assignments.

He has evaluated training programs for several multi-regional SWAT teams throughout Illinois, according to electbillevans.com. He also had a four-year career as a professional boxer, from 1992 to 1996.

He promises one of his first jobs would be commissioning an audit of the positions in the department to see what jobs are necessary and which can be eliminated.

Both Evans and Baker call for more training of sheriff's personnel and encourage the use of ibonds to reduce jail overcrowding.

Baker, assistant director of security for City Colleges of Chicago, is working on a doctorate in social psychology. A retired sergeant with the sheriff's department, he was a supervisor on undercover drug and gang projects.

Baker wants the sheriff to patrol high-crime areas in Chicago and proposes a special deputization for 1,000 citizens to act as "intelligence and information" officers.

Dart responds that targeted campaigns against gangs and drugs are more effective than general patrolling.

Baker said ibonds are not used much for political reasons.

"They don't want the political liability of releasing people in case they commit other crimes, but that's copping out," Baker said.

"It comes with the job. There will be strict criteria based on charges and background, the nature of the crime. That's the best way to reduce overcrowding."

The Daily Herald has not interviewed Palka, the fourth candidate. He responded to questions recently by email.

His campaign calls for better communication with other police departments.

"Chicago's crime is high due to the fact of poor management at the Sheriff's office," his written statement said. "I would like to develop task forces dedicated for crime fighting especially in the city of Chicago limits."

And he said he would work with judges to have more jail inmates released with electronic monitoring, "cut all costly political contracts" and hire more staff, which he said would cut costly overtime.

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