Voters in Champaign County have a unique opportunity this election cycle: to actually have a choice of Sheriff candidates on their ballots. Retiring Sheriff Dan Walsh ran unopposed for 3 of his 4 terms, and was opposed by a write-in candidate for the other. Since this is the first real Sheriff's race in a number of years, it seemed like a good one to highlight. Essentially, the Sheriff oversees law enforcement at the county level, and also serves as warden of the county jail. You can see a detailed list of their duties here. I reached out to both candidates, Dustin Heuerman (D) and Allen Jones (R) to find out more about their background and experience as well as their plans for the office. First up, Heuerman.
Smile Politely: Can you briefly describe your background and professional experience?
Dustin Heuerman: I grew up in rural Effingham County but have lived in Champaign County since 2010 when I started as a deputy sheriff with the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office. Prior to that, I served as Chief of Police for the Village of Atwood and a deputy sheriff for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. My husband grew up in Champaign and went to Central High School. He is a registered nurse at Carle Foundation Hospital. My experience of growing up in a rural area but living in Champaign for the last decade gives me a unique perspective to understand the needs of all of Champaign County.
I have over 19 years of experience in the criminal justice field, which includes 911 telecommunications, investigations, patrol, being a Chief of Police, and leading a college criminal justice program. I have been a certified police officer for fifteen years. I have acquired skills in writing and oversight of federal grants for training and equipment, emergency planning and preparedness, oversight of personnel & public facilities, review and development of law enforcement policies and procedures, and strategic planning. I have also served in leadership for a union of approximately 130 members, including contract negotiations. I previously served as Vice Chair for the Human Relations Commission with the City of Champaign.
I bring to the citizens of Champaign County diverse cultural perspectives, especially within the LGBTQ and Latino communities, as well as a combination of education and experience. In addition to my criminal justice and law enforcement experience, I also have a master’s degree in criminology and a doctorate in leadership.
SP: Why is Sheriff an elected position? What do you see as the positives and negatives of this?
Heuerman: This is a great question, because as Sheriff I serve all the people of Champaign County equally, with no consideration of their political affiliation, or ability to vote. I think one positive is that an election gives the majority of people we serve an opportunity to weigh in on how I am doing as Sheriff, and how they want the Sheriff’s office and criminal justice system to operate. For example, this November the voters will decide if we are comfortable with “business as usual” at the sheriff’s office, or if it’s time for a new perspective. Instead of a few people deciding what is best for our county, everyone decides! This means we don’t only have to look at qualifications, but also at which candidate is the best fit for what we want to accomplish. An election helps voice those thoughts! Another positive is that the election process helps voters get honest answers to important questions in an open forum through campaigning. It is more difficult to keep secrets or be deceitful when an open process is taking place.
One negative of the election process is that many times voters vote for the name they recognize, not necessarily the person who would do the best job to accomplish the goals to lead our county where we want to be. With this election, for example, some voters might assume that my opponent, with his nearly three decades of experience at the Sheriff’s office, is the best choice for Sheriff. A little bit of research, however, might prove that wrong. With so many resources out there to find out about each candidate, it is imperative that we do so in order to make an informed decision at the polls.
SP: Sheriff is also a partisan election. Why is that and how do you your political leanings inform the way you approach the position?
Heuerman: In some ways it is a shame that Sheriff candidates have to declare a political party because as Sheriff, we represent all people in the county. On the other hand, having to declare a political party gives voters some idea of the thoughts and philosophies behind each candidate. Having to declare a political party also gives a label to candidates and might cause some voters to completely write that candidate off before learning about for what he/she stands and believes.
For example, since I am running as a Democrat, some people might assume that I am “soft on crime.” I’m not soft on crime, but rather think we can find better ways to approach non-violent offenders while saving taxpayer money. My family and friends live in Champaign County and I don’t want them to be victims of crime any more than you want your family and friends to be victims of crime.
I’m a Democratic candidate because I think it is absurd that someone is treated differently because of the color of his/her skin, sexual orientation, gender, disability, religion, age, etc. As such, this will help me to help ensure my employees treat everyone equally and not based on one of these attributes. As a taxpayer and criminologist, I also see that the way we’ve been treating nonviolent pretrial detainees and offenders in jail hasn’t worked, so it’s time to move on to other ways of trying to keep them from coming back to jail once released. Again, I want a safe and secure county for everyone, including my family and friends, but I also want to use taxpayer money where it is going to make the biggest positive impact!
At the end of the day, I’m willing to consider any idea that seems to make our community safer and a better place to live, regardless of the political affiliation of the person who presented it to me.
SP: The Sheriff’s office and local police departments are two separate entities. Can you describe how the responsibilities differ, and also how those entities work in conjunction with one another?
Heuerman: Over the last several years I’ve had the privilege of working as a police officer for the Thomasboro Police Department and Tolono Police Department, so I understand the unique challenges these departments can have. For example, many times smaller police departments in the county struggle to find qualified officers and can have limited resources to provide the same level of service as other departments. I see a great opportunity for the Sheriff’s office to support smaller police departments in the county and help to provide residents a safe community. Even larger police departments, such as Champaign Police Department, Urbana Police Department, and U of I Police Department have limited resources and we all can benefit from mutual cooperation.
Local police departments answer to their own governing bodies, usually a Chief of Police who is appointed by an elected board, and focus on localized issues. These can range anywhere from addressing violence in the community to addressing city ordinance violations. The Sheriff’s office, however, is not only responsible for a patrol division, but also the county jail(s) and providing security to the courthouse. We also serve civil papers to residents within Champaign County. While municipal police officers only have jurisdiction in their cities/villages, Sheriff’s deputies have jurisdiction county-wide. It is not unusual for local departments to assist the sheriff’s office when responding to calls for service, or vice versa.
While local police departments focus on local issues, the sheriff’s office should be looking for consistencies in the issues throughout the county and facilitate conversation on how to best support finding solutions to these issues. For example, while the Champaign Police Department and the Mahomet Police Department might each have their separate ways of interacting with mentally ill suspects, the sheriff’s office has a vested interest in making sure all arrestees with mental illness get the treatment and provisions they need. Thus, the sheriff’s office has an interest in helping to collaborate for a common solution. Of course, the sheriff’s office has to handle a wide range of crime on the county level as well, as we are the primary law enforcement agency for many villages and rural areas within the county. It is very important that all law enforcement agencies in Champaign County work well together.
SP: You are a relative “outsider” running against an “insider”, why do you think you would do a better job in this office?
Heuerman: We need to change the way our criminal justice system operates. We always talk about changing the way law enforcement and corrections operate, but we also keep electing and promoting people from within, people who are embedded with the “old way” of doing things, so nothing really changes. I think this is an opportunity for a fresh perspective by someone who is qualified to do the job and whose training and education prepares him to use research to drive decisions. My opponent boasts that he has been making high-level decisions for the sheriff’s office for years as Chief Deputy, but the county continues to get sued for millions of dollars because we haven’t adequately addressed mental health issues in the jail, training for officers has decreased, morale at the sheriff’s office is very low, and deputies are spending less time proactively patrolling rural parts of the county — parts of the county that rely on us for their primary police service — because of a lack of personnel caused by several officers seeking jobs elsewhere.
There is little doubt that my opponent knows more about how the sheriff’s office currently operates than I do, though I do have experience as a deputy sheriff with the sheriff’s office. However, does that mean he’s a better candidate because he will continue doing the things the sheriff’s office has always done? This is the only perspective he’s had for the last few decades.
As an effective leader, I will surround myself with a good, knowledgeable team to help reach the best solutions! I bring a perspective that encompasses a lot of different experiences and knowledge — a lot of ways of doing things that can be combined into “best practices.” There is a reason more than 20 sheriff’s office employees have reached out to me showing their support for change in leadership. There are only two choices for Sheriff this November: the old way of doing things, and a fresh perspective on doing things.
With the current Sheriff retiring, this is a great opportunity to see what an “outsider” can do to progress the sheriff’s office and the criminal justice system in Champaign County. I think we owe it to our diverse county to provide a fresh perspective on things.
SP: What do you see going well in the sheriff’s office now, and where do you hope to enact change?
Heuerman: A lot of my current knowledge about the sheriff’s office comes from employees reaching out to me to express their concerns about the sheriff’s office if leadership doesn’t change. To my knowledge, employees at the sheriff’s office are ethical, hardworking, and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, many of them are also leaving for various reasons, including low morale among deputies and correctional officers. The reduction in deputies has resulted in less time being spent proactively patrolling the more rural areas of the county — areas that rely on the sheriff’s office for primary police service. My goal will be to increase morale and level the playing field when compared to other departments, so employees want to stay at the sheriff’s office and feel both challenged in, and rewarded for, their hard work. I will also make employees who are affected by decisions part of the decision-making process so those most knowledgeable about their positions can provide their input.
The sheriff’s office has also invested in technology and equipment. An example can be seen in the body cameras each officer wears, patrol vehicles, and updated equipment in patrol cars to help deputies properly do their jobs. Where the sheriff’s office is lacking, however, is with training. While technology is beneficial to help officers do their jobs effectively and transparently, we cannot fail to properly train officers on the tools they are required to carry every day. Training for firearms proficiency has been greatly reduced over the past couple of years. While we hope that officers never have to use their firearms in the line of duty, we should adequately prepare them as if they will need to. As Sheriff, I will also increase training for using communication to de-escalate situations and for better recognizing and addressing mental illness.
SP: How do you plan to address racial bias?
Heuerman: The first step to addressing racial bias is to educate employees on the implicit bias that is embedded into the criminal justice system. Part of the reason I am excited about being the next Sheriff is because by having someone external to the sheriff’s office come in, it will help break the cycle that has been embedded into everyday operations. I’m not interested in only addressing racial bias, but also any bias that encourages anything but equal treatment for all people.
Repairing the relationship with the community, and being transparent if an incident does occur, will also help foster mutual respect and communication, which is essential to effective police-community relations. I don’t expect everyone to always be happy with my decisions, but I will be transparent in them. It is important that community members feel comfortable speaking with me, as Sheriff, and other police officers. If review of body camera footage, racial profiling data or a citizen complaint implies bias in an officer’s actions, the incident will be immediately investigated, and appropriate action taken. We can also use data obtained to adjust policies and procedures where necessary.
Lastly, to best serve the community, our employees need to be representative of that community as well. I will work to increase diversity among employees so diverse solutions can be reached to problems we are experiencing at the sheriff’s office and criminal justice system.
SP: How will you improve relations between law enforcement (or at least this arm of it) and the communities served by your department?
Heuerman: Here I’ll mostly focus on what we can do to improve relationships between the sheriff’s office and the communities that rely on the sheriff’s office for their primary police service, as the sheriff’s office really serves all people in Champaign County.
One of the ways to do this is to be seen in those communities, which isn’t happening as much now, with reduced personnel, as it did in the past. Simply seeing a patrol car drive through your neighborhood or down your road can make you feel safer! Though you might be really safe in the neighborhood in which you live, not feeling safe can affect your quality of life.
A second way is to actually listen to the needs of people living in these communities. Getting out of the patrol car and walking down the sidewalk talking to people can be a great way to show the community you are here to help and really care about them. I also plan to frequently communicate with community leaders (mayors, police chiefs, fire chiefs, etc.) to see how the sheriff’s office can best meet their needs and ensure a safe community for their citizens. I have recently spoken with some community leaders throughout the county who have expressed disappointment in how the sheriff’s office is currently addressing those needs.
SP: Do you support expansion of the jail? Why or why not?
Heuerman: I do not support an expansion of the jail to include more beds than we currently have with both facilities. If we add more beds, then there is no incentive to develop programs to keep people out of jail. I’d rather use taxpayer money to help keep people from coming back to jail than to have them simply sit in a jail cell time after time because they’ve reoffended. I do believe the downtown jail needs to be closed, though, which would mean that facility and the sheriff’s office would need to be relocated. As such, consolidation into one facility might include more square footage at the satellite jail facility, however the space will not be used to increase the capacity of the jail. My goal is that formation of this consolidated facility will allow us to repurpose space for education programs and other activities that help inmates to not reoffend once released. Renovated space will also help us better address the special needs of our inmates, resulting in a reduction of lawsuits against the county and injuries to staff.
SP: Do you have a plan for reducing incarcerations?
Heuerman: Of course! First, I will work with the judicial system and our local legislators to continue progressing on bail reform. There is no reason that nonviolent arrestees who present no danger to the community and who are likely to show up for their court date should be sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. They could be using this time to do productive things in the community, such as looking for a job (or going to the one they already have), going to school, or attending counseling or treatment. As a criminologist, I know there are common things that encourage people not to break the law. We don’t want to take them away from those things unless absolutely necessary.
Second, if someone does end up in jail as a punishment, we need to provide them with resources that will help them not reoffend once released. Partnering with Parkland College, for example, would be a good way to expand vocational skills or basic adult education skills which can help provide offenders resources so they won’t have to reoffend. Many people don’t even know these resources exist for them. If we truly care about reducing the incarceration rate, we need to help offenders not reoffend.
Along the same lines, the sheriff’s office already offers electronic home detention for some offenders as an alternative to incarceration. I would like to expand this program, which allows offenders to wear an ankle bracelet at home, but still attend work or school so they can live productive lives and participate in activities that will reduce the likelihood of reoffending. It is important that we provide adequate supervision to these offenders, though, so they are not tempted to continue breaking the law even while on this alternative to incarceration. This supervision is an area that the sheriff’s office has been lacking in during recent years.
Lastly, criminal justice systems throughout the nation have a bad habit of incarcerating the mentally ill simply because there is nowhere else to place them. Champaign County is no exception. This is simply unacceptable. My goal as Sheriff is to work with mental health agencies to form alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill pre-trial detainees and offenders. The jail should not be the destination for mentally ill pre-trial detainees. For mentally ill offenders who are sentenced to the jail as a sentence, we need to have adequate facilities and processes in place to address their needs. It is my hope that with collaboration between mental health organizations, the judicial system, and the sheriff’s office, we will see a drastic decline in mental illness in the jail.
SP: Do you think the Sheriff’s office should cooperate with ICE?
Heuerman: No. As Sheriff my priority is this county and the people that reside here. That means making sure we are all safe, we are all comfortable coming to the police when there is a crime to report, and we are all part of this community. I want to break down barriers in our community, not build them. ICE creates a barrier between police and community relations. I want to improve police community relations, not destroy them. ICE makes people fearful to report crimes. No victim should be afraid to report a crime to the police. ICE puts all of our constitutional protections in jeopardy by action through suspicion based on appearance, not facts. As Sheriff, I will work with the non-profit immigration groups in our community to ensure a safe and welcoming county for everyone.
You can learn more about Dustin Heuerman from his campaign website.