On Oct. 25, the Campus Student Election Commission, Alpha Nu Fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority held the first of two candidate forums for county elections, hosting the incumbent Democratic Sheriff Dustin Heuerman and Republican challenger John Brown at the Clements Auditorium in the ARC.
Brown, whose father was a sheriff in Champaign County, emphasized his 32 years of experience in various law enforcement capacities, including 30 years spent with the University of Illinois Police Department. Brown also said that he is currently deputy chief for the Tolono Police department, a graduate of the FBI national academy in Quantico, Va. and the mayor of Savoy, Ill.
“You know, the common theme that I heard over and over again, or the common statement that was made several times, was Dustin’s a nice guy, but he’s in over his head,” Brown said late in the meeting.
Heuerman, sheriff since 2018, is the first Democratic sheriff of Champaign County since the 1930s, and one of five LGBTQ+ sheriffs in the country. He spoke of 23 years spent in public service, including in “emergency medical services, 911 telecommunications, uniformed patrol and plainclothes narcotics investigations.”
Heuerman is also on the board of the New American Welcome Center, which works to welcome immigrants to the area, and is a former tenured faculty member in the criminal justice program at Lake Land College.
“I’m going to continue to build on the foundation that we’ve laid over the last four years and continue to work on a more equitable criminal justice system,” Heuerman said.
Students who moderated the event asked candidates about how they would respond to rising crime signed by increased amounts of Illini-Alerts.
“(UIPD) Chief Cary and I already speak frequently about how we can best support each other in these endeavors,” Heuerman said.
Heuerman also noted that gun crime in the county went “crazy” in 2021 but went down by 50% in 2022 and said later in the forum that gun violence used to be isolated among rival gangs, but now, incidents are more random.
“Now, we’re seeing random people get shot in the street,” Heuerman said.
He went on to say that “you can’t just tackle it from an enforcement perspective. That’s part of it, but you also have to make sure that we have resources that are dedicated to kids to make sure that they never pick up a gun in the first place.”
Brown said there used to be significantly less shooting incidents and that this has changed drastically.
“I mean, I worked here like I said, 30 years, and we used to get a shooting incident, maybe once every 10, once every 20 years.” Brown said.
Brown blamed the “defund the police movement” for the lack of proactive police officers.
“I think that one of the big things that has caused that is a lack of police officers being proactive, because of the ‘defund the police movement’ and some of the other issues,” Brown said. “They haven’t felt supported as they have in the past.”
Later in the evening, candidates responded to an audience question about the impending enforcement of the SAFE-T Act, which would eliminate cash bail come January.
Heuerman said that some of the “inconsistencies” were present in the law.
“So we’ve been working on this for months,” Heuerman said. “And it’s very, very very challenging.”
The sheriff said his office has been working with the state’s attorney’s office, jail superintendent and chief deputy in making sure the office is “as prepared as possible” for the SAFE-T Act, according to Heuerman.
“We already do a really good job at the sheriff’s office and at the jail at evaluating inmates, and getting those out of jail who don’t pose a public safety risk.”
Brown said the implementation will result in what he called a “logistical nightmare,” but did not offer solutions beyond saying that “procedures and training will have to be set up so that deputies know how to handle those different situations is drastically, drastically different than what it was in the past.”
In response to why there is an increasing turnover in law enforcement, Heuerman said law enforcement officers “leave for a variety of reasons,” and acknowledged that law enforcement and corrections is a difficult job, and “national incidents” in the past couple years have caused law enforcement officers to feel less supported.
“It’s not necessarily bad that law enforcement officers leave. There are unethical law enforcement officers out there,” Heuerman said. “It seems that when you start enforcing some of those policies and procedures, they don’t like being called out for some of those things that they’ve gotten away with for a very long time … We’ve got to support the ones who stick around.”
Both candidates said one of the issues facing the department is a shortage of correctional officers and what Brown, early in the forum, called “severe morale and staffing shortages” at the Champaign County Jail.
“So much so in a 30 day period of April of this year, when (the jail was) already down by eight correctional officers, they lost an additional nine. And in August, they lost another four correctional officers,” Brown said.
Brown pointed to correctional salaries that lagged behind those of a neighboring county and claimed that “a telecommunicator at (UIPD) has a higher starting wage than a correctional officer.”
Heuerman said that because the state government was not taking inmates to the Illinois Department of Human Services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the environment “forced correctional officers to be mental health workers, and they’re not mental health workers.”
In regard to pay, Heuerman said that the county is currently in union negotiations to increase staff salaries, but said that “the county’s only got a certain pot of money.”
Prompted by an audience question submitted online during the later stages of the forum, Brown criticized Sheriff Heuerman over an incident that occurred last year, when an individual crashed a truck into the Champaign County satellite jail and engaged in a confrontation with correctional officers.
“I have confidence in my staff and my staff acted accordingly, during this incident … And then afterwards, we made sure that those who were involved in the incident, we offered them the ability to speak with a psychologist, if they needed to, because this was a traumatic incident for my staff,” Heuerman said.
Brown said the incident was “probably the most serious event that has occurred at the jail since 1968.”
“Sheriff employees were taken hostage … and the sheriff chose not to come back from his vacation early, and in fact, extended his vacation by a day and went to Indianapolis and decided to go on a pelicart ride,” Brown alleged.
Brown continued to say that several officers involved in the incident have told him that the sheriff “never once followed up with them to see how they are doing.”
In response to an audience question about a deceased female inmate found in her cell earlier this month, Heuerman said that the matter was under investigation by state police, as all in-custody deaths are and that, preliminarily, the death looked as if it was due to a “medical emergency.”
“We have mental health staff, we have very rigorous procedures for correctional officers, to maintain the safety and security of those inmates, every 30 minutes, they have to go around and do their checks and make sure that inmates are alright,” Heuerman said .