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Macon County Sheriff Deputy James Turner checks over his vehicle before several shifts start at the Macon County Law Enforcement Center in Decatur.

CLAY JACKSON, HERALD & REVIEW

DECATUR — Macon County sheriff's deputies could have their own take-home vehicles as early as May, thanks to a $3.1 million, 15-year program largely paid for by Sheriff Howard Buffett’s private foundation.

The foundation will also buy rifles for the deputies, who have been using their personal rifles on the job. The Macon County Board approved both measures Thursday.

The idea stemmed from conversations with deputies about ways to improve office morale and efficiency, Buffett said. Having a take-home vehicle allows them to "clock in" in and immediately respond to incidents, rather than driving to and from work in their personal vehicles. 

“I think all around it’s a pretty positive thing,” he said.

The county will pay about $1 million over the life of the 15-year program, while the foundation will cover up to $2.1 million. Three existing Chevrolet Tahoes and four Chevrolet Impalas, at an approximate value of $34,150, will be traded in to offset the cost of new vehicles.

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Macon County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Atkins, right, leads a briefing at the Macon County Law Enforcement Center in Decatur.

New vehicles will be rolled out as existing ones near 100,000 miles, including some in the next few months. Each will be equipped with a patrol rifle, an earpiece in case of an emergency and in-car cameras. Officers will be responsible for the equipment of the vehicle, in addition to general care such as oil changes and car washes.

Such programs are not unique to law enforcement in Illinois and across the country; also in Central Illinois, the Springfield Police Department provides take-home vehicles for its officers. Sheriff’s office administrative Lt. Jonathan Butts said Macon County had a similar program in the 1980s, but it was eliminated due to costs.

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Macon County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Atkins, right, leads a briefing at the Macon County Law Enforcement Center in Decatur.

The office has about 16 patrol deputies on staff who would qualify for the program. Butts said that number includes several deputies who already have take-home vehicles because they are contracted to patrol in Forsyth, Blue Mound and other neighboring municipalities. Butts said the new program requirements are similar to the existing contracts, which require the deputies to take care of the vehicle.

Butts and Buffett said another hope is that the marked vehicles will increase visibility of the sheriff's office in the community. 

Maintenance costs are also expected to be lowered under the program. Whereas now one vehicle could be operated by five or six officers in a span of a few days, Buffett said having a dedicated officer to a vehicle would alleviate the stress of moving equipment each shift and give deputies more responsibility to care for their vehicles.

This also means the sheriff's office will no longer approach the county board every year with a proposal to buy new vehicles. 

“It creates sustainability for a long time,” Butts said. “Which is something that will help the future sheriff, the county board and the taxpayers not have to worry about asking for more money to purchase vehicles.”

Butts, a Democrat, is running for sheriff in the November election. The other two candidates are also top administrators for the sheriff's office: Lt. Tony Brown, a Democrat, and Lt. Jim Root, a Republican.

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Macon County Sheriff Deputy James Turner checks over his vehicle at the Macon County Law Enforcement Center in Decatur.

The Buffett Foundation will also purchase six patrol rifles and accessories at a total cost of $14,430. Deputies could use rifles when responding to shooting incidents, including at a school, or when suspects have barricaded themselves at a scene. They are not intended to replace the shotguns that are now in every patrol vehicle and used primarily to kill injured deer. 

“This is an effort to get more consistent so if there is an emergency, the rifles are available,” Buffett said.

Buffett, who has volunteered for the office since 2012, was named to the job in September by retiring Sheriff Thomas Schneider, but his financial support of local law enforcement dates back years.

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Macon County Sheriff Deputy James Turner inspects his vehicle before several shifts start at the Macon County Law Enforcement Center in Decatur.

In 2017 alone, donations have included:

  • In May, $350,000 for new training firearms, vehicles and other items;
  • In October, nearly $100,000 for bulletproof vests, beds for the Macon County Jail, more hours for a records clerk and a new Chevrolet Impala for civil process purposes;
  • Also in October, in-kind donations totaling $236,000 for consultants to assess the jail;
  • In November, $180,000 for a new Macon County prosecutor who will focus solely on opioid cases. 
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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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