DECATUR – A new police training center being built on the city's south side will instruct new recruits from throughout the state as well as provide advanced training for police chiefs and command officers.

The facility, funded by a $15 million donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, will be located on five acres at the northeast corner of the intersection of U.S. Business 51 and West Grove Road, just south of Rotary Park and west of Red Tail Run Golf Course.

Buffett said the center fits in with his foundation's goals of creating jobs, supporting local businesses and enhancing the region's public safety. He has served for more than four years on the Macon County Sheriff's department, as undersheriff and auxiliary deputy.

“During that time, I have gained significant insight into the needs of law enforcement,” Buffett said.

The campuslike facility will be owned by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, the agency responsible for certifying the state's law enforcement personnel.

Sheriff Tom Schneider has been involved in the planning of the facility, which has been discussed in law enforcement and government circles for two years. The academy will house 80 to 100 cadets year round, who will each attend 12-to-14 week sessions.

“This is coming about because Howard Buffett believes in our community,” Schneider said. “There will be so many people coming through Decatur to begin careers in law enforcement. Making this the center for this training will be a huge movement for local law enforcement. It will give an opportunity for all of us to be part of state-of-the-art training.”

The plan includes a two-story main building with classrooms, a mock courtroom, a mock jail booking area and scenario training rooms. A 23,000-square-foot hospitality building will provide housing for up to 90 recruits, with additional rooms to house law enforcement officials for advanced training. An indoor firearms range with 20 lanes is planned in a 9,000-square-foot building.

The construction project, overseen by Romano Co., is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2017. The work, which was under way this week, will employ about 70 percent union labor, according to the foundation.

“It has been a vision,” Schneider said. “When you first see the dirt being moved around, you understand it's a reality. This development will help kick-start that area for any future development. It will be something Decatur is very proud of. This will bring in businesses, jobs involving training officers, housing officers, housekeeping.”

The new facility is seen as a transition from the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois, which has been instructing police recruits since the 1950s. The institute ran into trouble a few years ago, when university leaders decided police training had little to do with the university's core mission. In April 2012, the chancellor announced it would be closed. Funding was also a key issue in that decision.

The state training and standards board worked with the university to keep the training institute open, although there was a brief shutdown. However, in recent years, some of the training sessions in Champaign have been held in facilities that are considered inadequate.

Brent Fischer, the board's executive director, said the idea for a new facility came to his attention as Buffett offered to donate money to create a better resource for police training, while investing in Decatur.

“This is a new situation for everyone,” Fischer said, adding that ordinarily academies are created separately from the board, then receive certification. “In this case, we will own this facility but will look for a university to be administering the academy. We are working with another university we hope to enact a partnership with.”

Fischer said the board remains in discussions with the University of Illinois, to facilitate the transition of basic officer training from Champaign to Decatur.

“They want to retain the research component at the PTI,” Fischer said. “They look at this as a good opportunity for law enforcement.”

The Decatur training facility will join the state's other police training academies: Illinois State Police, Chicago Police, Cook County Sheriff's Office and Southwestern Illinois College.

City Manager Tim Gleason said he is ecstatic that the state training and standards board, of which he is a member, chose Decatur as home for the facility that “will serve as the primary police training throughout the state.

“I want to especially thank the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Howard personally for what has been a continuous commitment to local law enforcement and to this community,” Gleason said. Gleason formerly served as a police lieutenant in Pekin. “This new facility will ensure that the men and women who choose a career in law enforcement will have the level of training that they need and deserve for years to come.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Dawson said the new training center is a perfect fit for Decatur, where law enforcement officers are well-respected.

“People from all across Illinois will be here,” said Dawson, a former Macon County sheriff who is filling in for Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe while she is on an overseas trip. “They may come back for recreation or leisure.”

Dawson said he believes Decatur will be a great host for the recruits and chiefs of police who visit the city.

“I live on that side of town, and I don't see any negatives," Dawson said. "Anything Howard Buffett does is never done on a shoestring. It will be a world-class facility.”

Richland Community College was approached by the training and standards board about possible involvement, partly because the school attracts many students for its criminal justice programs.

“Now this facility will train law enforcement students throughout Illinois, so now you can start here and finish here,” said Richland spokeswoman Lisa Gregory.

She explained that students as young as high school juniors may take dual-credit criminal justice courses at Heartland Technical Academy, then earn an associate degree at Richland. As a result of a recent arrangement, they may then transfer all the Richland credits to Western Illinois University for a bachelor's degree, which could lead to a position on a municipal police department. That department would likely train its recruits in Decatur.

Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corporation, said he was glad to hear the announcement for the new training center. The employment opportunities, as well as the additional traffic from recruits and visitors, will boost the economy.

There should be a ripple effect from the additional wages, especially paid to local union workers who take part in the project on the city's far south side.

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Staff Writer

Staff Writer for the Herald & Review.

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