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Thursday, March 13, 2014 12:01 am

We back Jack

Campbell for sheriff

Jack Campbell
There is no race on next Tuesday’s ballot more important than the Republican primary for Sangamon County sheriff.

No other elective office in the county has the power of life or death, particularly in the jail. Inmates die when jails provide poor medical care, and lawsuits happen, with fiscal stakes running into the millions of dollars in a county that is self-insured.

It is not a post where candidates should be judged by who has the most yard signs or who sponsors the most holes at charity golf outings or who can get the most endorsements from politicians with no experience in law enforcement. We need a cop who fixes things that need fixing, knows when to leave things alone and understands that the public trust is most sacred when it is placed in the hands of people who carry guns.

Undersheriff Jack Campbell, who has been running the day-to-day operations of the department since 2008, is both helped and hobbled by his status as a de facto incumbent. On the plus side, he’s been able to establish a track record. The down side is, the buck still stops with sheriff Neil Williamson, so no one can be certain whether successes within the office are attributable to Campbell or, conversely, whether failures are Campbell’s fault. But, on the whole, the sheriff’s department is in better shape today than when Campbell rose to second in command and became the department’s public face.

Deputies are less prone to use Tasers – incidents have plummeted from 51 in 2008 to nine last year. Despite budget cuts, crime is down, as are workers’ compensation claims in the sheriff’s office. Three inmates died in 2007, the year before Campbell rose to his current spot, prompting lawsuits and legal bills and settlements that collectively hover around $3 million. Since then, there has been one jail death with no ensuing lawsuit, perhaps because the department got new doctors and otherwise improved jail health care.

The sheriff’s department isn’t perfect. Among other things, it should not have cut its dedicated DUI officer in 2012, when the state reduced, but did not eliminate, funding to pay expenses. And the department’s defense of deputy Travis Koester, who needlessly tased a woman after a traffic stop in 2011 and fibbed in court during a 2010 drug case, is troubling.

Transparency is the saving grace. The sheriff’s department generally doesn’t argue when asked for records that can be less than flattering. In Koester’s case, for example, the department promptly made public a video of the traffic stop that shows the deputy tasing Tamara Skube, who has sued. Similarly, the department released Koester’s voluminous disciplinary file within five days of receiving a request. Such openness allows citizens to decide for themselves whether the sheriff’s department is doing the right thing.

It is odd, then, that Wes Barr, Campbell’s opponent, has said that he would hire someone to handle Freedom of Information Act requests. He hasn’t said how he would pay for a new employee nor has he said why one is necessary. Barr has also said that he wants to reinstitute a crime prevention program. Again, he has not said how he would pay for it, nor has he established a need at a time when money for law enforcement is tight.

It would be one thing if Barr, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant, had a plan for things that matter most to taxpayers. But, by and large, he has not presented anything to suggest that he would do anything differently than what the office is doing now. Alarmingly, Barr says that he has not read pending lawsuits against the county that could result in huge bills for taxpayers. That’s inexcusable for any candidate who says that he’s prepared for the job.

Barr, who became a cop after being discharged from the Marine Corps, has never worked in the private sector. On the stump, he talks about growing up in the Hay Homes, where his mother would point to passing police cars and tell him, “That’s going to be you some day.”

Military service and law enforcement are noble endeavors, but there is also something to be said for real-life experience without a government paycheck. Campbell didn’t become a full-time cop until he was 31 years old. Before that, he worked in construction and at a chemical plant, jobs that gave him firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be an average Joe. That he earned a bachelor’s degree at University of Illinois Springfield while working full time and raising a family shows that Campbell has the ability to focus and work hard.

Barr has an admirable resume as a volunteer, helping such organizations as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and Toys For Tots. We applaud him for that. Barr has done good things for the community while making lots of friends along the way. Campbell has done good things for the community in the field of law enforcement. Barr may or may not have the skills necessary to run the sheriff’s office. Campbell has demonstrated that he does, and the job is too important for voters to take a chance.

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