Wauconda's marine unit shifting to sworn police officers
Most members of the Wauconda Police Department's marine unit are sworn police officers this summer for the first time, a policy shift that gives the team more law-enforcement powers while patrolling Bangs Lake.
The unit previously consisted entirely of community service officers -- police department employees who wear uniforms but do not carry guns or badges. They could enforce fishing regulations and conservation laws, conduct boat-safety inspections and write tickets when needed, but they didn't have the legal power to arrest lawbreakers.
If ever an arrest was needed on the lake, someone had to call for a police officer, who'd then head to the boat docks.
Police Chief David Wermes, who joined the department in December, wanted to change that.
"Sworn officers can take full enforcement action. They have training in use of force, CPR ... critical incidents and the basic police training academy, along with many other certifications," Wermes said.
Stocking the marine unit with sworn officers also lets Wauconda's land-based police force focus on public-safety issues elsewhere in town.
"The goal is to keep the officers on the street instead of having them come to the boat docks for enforcement reasons," Wermes said.
Having sworn officers patrolling the lake could come in handy in a crisis, too, he said.
"(If) additional manpower is needed for a critical incident, we have sworn officers to fall back on," Wermes said.
The marine unit is on the 306-acre lake between May and October.
Of the marine officers working this summer, only one is a community service officer. Four others are sworn police officers who are either retired cops or who work in other departments when not on Bangs Lake.
Two additional police officers are being trained to join the team.
Wheeling police Detective Ian Frey joined the marine unit this year and loves the assignment.
He cruises the scenic lake looking for speeders and boaters who don't have proper safety equipment aboard, among other scofflaws. He also ensures boats towing people on inner tubes or water skis are flying orange safety flags to warn other boaters about the people behind the crafts.
Frey wants boaters to be safe on the water, but he also wants to keep the mood upbeat. That's why he'd rather issue a warning for a first-time, minor infraction than write a ticket.
It's a law enforcement job with a big community relations component.
"We want to keep people happy and keep people coming out (to Bangs Lake)," he said. "By giving everyone tickets, no one's going to come out and no one's going to be happy."
With the arrival of sworn officers, the marine unit uniform has changed slightly.
Members will continue to wear blue polo shirts with badges printed on the chest pocket. But the sworn officers' shirts say "Police Marine Unit" on the back, and they wear special Wauconda police badges that say "Marine Officer."
The marine-unit job is considered a part-time assignment -- but historically, Wauconda hasn't had part-time police officers. To make it legal, trustees on Monday adopted an ordinance allowing the employment of part-time cops.
Part-time police officers are paid $1 per hour more than community service officers, Wermes said, so the change will be more expensive for the town -- but not by much. He estimates the additional cost will be less than $1,200 for the summer.
Mayor Frank Bart called the financial impact "very reasonable."
"The village of Wauconda gets a greater public safety value for a minimal difference in cost," he said.