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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008 04:56 pm

Capitol risk assessment

Law enforcement agencies try to make cuts without compromising safety

For the past year, an underground parking garage that connects several state government buildings at the Capitol Complex has been without a stationary security presence. In light of recent fiscal reductions ordered by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state agencies are scrambling to trim costs without compromising the safety of the public or law enforcement officers.

In July, the governor carved $26 million from Secretary of State Jesse White's budget, or approximately one-third of the amount appropriated to that department by the General Assembly. Of that sum, $1 million was earmarked for security at the Capitol. "We are analyzing the impact of the cuts. But we are not willing to compromise public safety," says Henry Haupt, a spokesman for White.

Some changes have already been made. The Capitol Police, created in 2004 after a security guard was shot and killed, is undermanned by a dozen officers, positions that are unlikely to be filled. The officers are assigned to the Howlett and Stratton office buildings, Illinois State Museum, Armory, Supreme Court, Statehouse, and other prominent buildings. Because of the understaffing, some posts are sometimes unguarded for brief periods, says one Capitol police officer.

The officer is concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack similar to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, which took place in an underground parking garage, as well as about the safety of workers in the dimly lit area. "You can do anything you want down there," the officer says.

Haupt notes that only employees can gain access to the building, with a pass. In addition, car patrols maintain an active presence, driving through the garage several times per day, he adds. However, because of the cuts, the secretary of state might be forced to consider further limiting access to the Capitol, including shutting off some entrances and closing the building on weekends.

Sean Smoot, executive director of the Police Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents members of the Capitol police force, says the safety of both officers and the public are paramount. He anticipates raising some of these issues when the union meets with Secretary of State officials to negotiate a new contract in the coming weeks.

Smoot, whose organization also represents Illinois Department of Natural Resources conservation police officers, says that agency is also coping with deep cuts. He says the agency has 20 fewer officer than they should (and are likely to lose about a dozen more) and disbanded its investigative unit, which keeps tabs on poachers and tree pirates.

"It's a pretty significant blow to the preservation of natural resources and conservation in the state," Smoot says.

Chris McCloud, communications director for the IDNR, says the investigators were not disbanded, but instead will return to regular patrols working in communities. "What that does is effectively put seven additional officers on the streets. The investigative work is still a priority for Conservation police. It will now be handled by officers — who are all trained — in our regional districts," McCloud says.

Public safety, he adds, remains the top priority for IDNR and its conservation police force.

"While Illinois and the nation are faced with financial challenges, those challenges do not compromise the role of our CPOs. Our officers continue to meet their responsibilities as they always do."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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