Opponents of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Try to Stay on the Vote

Amid an era of heightened concern about violence, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s opponents in his re-election bid have tried to portray him to voters as a soft-on-crime boss who’s been in the business for too long — but most of them must first be put on the ballot again.

The Democrats Who Launched Campaigns for Sheriff are using the crime issue to hammer Dart, claiming they can make greater strides in reversing recent trends that led Cook County to see its highest firearms homicide rate since the 1990s, according to the county medical examiner’s office.

However, two of the three hopefuls have been removed as candidates in last-minute court decisions, including one as recent as Wednesday.

The back and forth over who can and cannot vote has become a major part of the sheriff’s race, in large part because Dart has led the charge to have the names of his challengers removed from the ballot.

Dart stands by his maneuvers to disqualify rivals and said he did what he could to address shootings and other crimes in Cook County.

“We’ve done a very good job addressing the violent issues within our purview,” Dart said in an interview with the Tribune.

He noted that he added a new police command post in downtown and continues to patrol officers near Austin, which he believes has curbed the homicide rate in the area.

That’s in addition to what he said, his efforts that he’s pushed both in and out of prison to address the root causes of crime through mental health and substance abuse programs, as well as employment support. For example, since 2019, some individuals who possessed or used drugs have been diverted from arrest and sent to a sheriff’s handling team that offers recovery services.

Dart then joked, “Now can my opponents say, ‘Well, crime is on the rise in Indiana and you should do something about it?’ Yes, they can.”

Dart, a former state legislator who has been a sheriff since 2006, has the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party and many more campaign funds. Running to knock him off the throne in the June 28th primary ones are Carmen Navarro Gercone, the executive clerk of court operations and administration at the clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, who previously served as Dart’s assistant executive director; Noland Rivera, a Chicago police sergeant whose wife was a Cook County correctional officer who died of COVID-19; and Dolton police officer LaTonya Ruffin, a former sheriff’s employee who sued Dart in 2011 after she was fired for allegedly making false statements about not securing her service weapon.

Both Navarro Gercone and Ruffin were pushed off the ballot after being ineligible to participate in separate Illinois appellate court rulings for the past two weeks. Navarro Gercone’s campaign has vowed to appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court.

Opponents of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Try to Stay on the Vote

The challenges came from Dart’s campaign, even though the incumbent has kept a low profile in the months leading up to the primaries. His attempt to disqualify Navarro Gercone by taking advantage of a little-known provision in the sweeping constitutional criminal law reform passed last year, known as the SAFE-T Act, has received the most attention.

That provision requires Illinois sheriff candidates to be either certified law enforcement officers or receive equivalent training from another state or federal agency. officers.

“I was qualified enough to lead the second-largest division under Tom Dart’s administration,” Navarro Gercone said at a candidates forum that Dart did not attend. “But when it came to going for sheriff, he didn’t want competition, plain and simple, and he thought I’d go back.”

Dart, who has said he was not aware of the new requirement until after the law was signed, mocked Navarro Gercone’s description of why he was challenging her candidacy.

“I certainly can’t walk around choosing which laws we follow and which laws we don’t follow,” Dart said.

The sheriff’s office has a budget of $631.5 million and approximately 5,400 employees who work in various departments, including: Cook County Jail, overseeing security at the courthouses or a department of the police that patrols unincorporated areas and certain municipalities.

But the sheriff’s electronic control program – which takes only 4% of his budget and has… approximately 120 staff positions held — has become a central campaign theme. With fears of crime on the rise, the program that sends some defendants home with ankle bracelets to await trial has become a third-rate political issue.

While the electronic check is conducted by Dart’s office, the Cook County judges make the decisions in which the suspects participate. Originally designed to reduce overcrowding in one of the country’s largest prisons, the program was criticized by Dart’s detractors — and Dart himself — for releasing too many defendants on violent or gun-related charges, they say.

Opponents of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Try to Stay on the Vote

Dart has maintained that he has no control over how the composition of the population has shifted to more individuals who have faced such allegations after the county’s 2017 bail reforms, according to the records of his office.

“There absolutely needs to be a complete reform of electronic surveillance,” Navarro Gercone told the Tribune, saying she will open more “talks” with the courts to do so. “Violent offenders will have no place in my administration’s electronic control program. … That’s something I’m willing to fight for.”

Rivera agreed. He also vowed to cut 300 top positions he says are “redundant” to hire 3,000 regular workers to bolster the staff overseeing electronic monitoring, among other departments under the sheriff. He nodded at the 341 electronic surveillance participants that the sheriff can’t find as a reason for that need.

Dart said to both, “I find that fascinating and interesting because it says some people are misinformed.”

He argued that his hands are tied because the County Board of Commissioners sets its budget, the judges are the ones who issue electronic monitoring orders, and he was charged in 2018 for briefly refusing to release certain defendants in the program.

Opponents of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart Try to Stay on the Vote

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Timothy Evans has responded to calls to prevent accused gun offenders from being electronically monitored by reminding critics that regardless of charges, suspects in the preliminary investigation are considered innocent. And since the bail reform began, according to statistics by the end of 2021 from the chief justice’s office, 3.4% of people charged with crimes released from prison before their trial will face new violent charges. filed while they are released.

About 28.4% of the sheriff’s electronic surveillance population was there because they… charged with a violent crime, the chief judge’s records show. In all, the sheriff’s office records that about 2,300 people have currently been ordered for the program, down from a high of more than 3,600 last year.

Both Navarro Gercone and Ruffin say the Dart administration has a penchant for filing lawsuits and internal investigations that cost taxpayers millions and point to deeper problems in the sheriff’s office.

They cited a class action lawsuit from more than 500 female correctional officers alleging management tolerated aggressive sexual harassment of male inmates in the district jail, as well as a court ruling that the composition of the Sheriff’s Merit Board, which responsible for measurement out discipline, was unlawful. The latest finding was followed by a former employee who charged with misconduct that eventually resulted in a $5.6 million payment from the county.

“Nothing is being done; the women don’t feel safe,” Ruffin said about “ the first lawsuit, to which Dart’s office has responded by saying the administration is doing everything it can to ensure a safe environment.

Rivera said these internal disputes stemmed from Dart being an “absent sheriff.” But the old incumbent said he thinks he has a “very good relationship” with most of the employees.

“I’d like to objectively introduce to you that I’m probably the most practical sheriff ever,” Dart said. “I am very happy in this job. I don’t feel like running for anything else.”

Then there’s the ongoing joint investigation by Dart and the FBI into whether sheriff’s employees received county pay while working side jobs or not at all. as first reported by the Tribune.

Dart told the Tribune he learned of the alleged misconduct when a “handful” of staffers appeared to be taking advantage of a pause in using their thumbprints to clock in their shifts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said he has proven his ethics to be clean, and nods to his office which has been the first to be found to comply with the Shakman Decree, a court order banning political patronage in government.

“I caught them,” Dart said of the employees being disciplined. “I was the one pursuing it.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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