Capitol police short-handed
SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois State Capitol police force created after a deadly shooting has been cut nearly in half, forcing officers to work costly overtime shifts to protect the building at a time when security concerns have been heightened.
Attrition and spending cuts have strained the unit since it was established in response to the death of an unarmed security guard in 2004. Meanwhile, the shooting of a congresswoman and the killing of Osama Bin Laden have increased security concerns.
Secretary of State Jesse White's office and lawmakers are confident the 32 officers on the job -- including three supervisors who cover posts when needed -- are keeping a lid on potential problems.
"These folks are working hard. You see the same people, and they're here every day, many, many hours. They need reinforcements," said Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat from Marengo and chairman of the State Government Administration committee.
An aide says White is poised to hire more officers, though not enough to reach the 60 authorized.
The Capitol also faces a shortage of unarmed security guards who staff checkpoints and patrol the building. Sixty guards are authorized, but only 40 are on staff.
Franks and Springfield-area lawmakers say they haven't heard any complaints about the situation.
Safety at government buildings got renewed attention after the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., in January. The possibility of terrorist attacks in response to the death of bin Laden added another layer of worry.
About 10 officers have left the police unit since winter, White spokesman Henry Haupt said. To make up for their absence, others worked $35,454 worth of overtime this fiscal year through March, a 43 percent increase from a year earlier.
The higher wages offered by other police forces lure away the Capitol officers, who earn $50,839 regardless of experience, said Sean Smoot, executive director for their union, the Police Benevolent Labor Committee. That's a competitive starting wage, but not for an officer several years into his career, he said.
The officers are negotiating a contract to replace one that expires June 30, he said. Longevity pay is just one way the state could make the job more attractive, Smoot said.
"Particularly at times like now, when you've got the General Assembly coming in on weekends and staying later at night, that requires officers to be there longer," Smoot said. "I'm sure it has a significant impact on family lives. They can't leave because there's no one else to call into work."
Beefing up Capitol security was debated for years. Even the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks didn't prompt improvements.
Then unarmed guard William Wozniak was killed by a shotgun blast to the chest on Sept. 20, 2004. His killer, Derek Potts, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and is being held in a state mental facility.
Wozniak's death ushered in a new era of state government security, with armed guards and metal detectors.
The Legislature authorized 60 police officers with an annual operating budget of about $3.5 million. This year, lawmakers appropriated just half that amount.
A force of 57 two years ago, including six in training, has now dropped to 32 -- a 44 percent decrease, Smoot said.
White helped support the police unit by diverting money from other parts of his budget. Haupt said the office has cut back on printing, telecommunications and overall overtime to divert more than $4 million to the unit over the past three years.
"Our goal is to ensure the Capitol is secure, and we do everything we can to make that happen," Haupt said.
The force covers 18 posts at various entrances of the Capitol and nearby buildings, Haupt said. Some are covered only during business hours, while others are guarded around the clock.
"Unfortunately, we're making cuts everywhere," said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield. "I just honestly haven't felt a lack of security. I'm not concerned. They're doing the best job they possibly can with the money they're given."