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How Ogle County sheriff candidates plan to fight crime

Published: Monday, March 17, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Incumbent Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn and challengers Joe Drought and Brian VanVickle face off in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Here’s a look at how they see the role of the county’s top crime fighter:

All three candidates have battlefield experience; in fact, Harn and Drought have been in law enforcement for three decades.

Specifically, Harn, 52, of Forreston, has nearly 30 years with the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, the past 3 as sheriff. Drought, 50, of Rochelle, has been chief of police at Rock Valley College in Rockford for 17 years; he has been in law enforcement the past 32 years. VanVickle, 37, also of Rochelle, has been an officer with the Rochelle Police Department since 2009.

As is the case in most other counties, burglaries and thefts are far and away the most oft-committed crimes in Ogle County, according to data reported to and compiled by the Illinois State Police. Meanwhile, countywide, drug arrests by all agencies dropped dramatically, from 2008 to 2011, from 301 to 153.

Harn cites his ability to make arrests while managing a greatly reduced budget and bringing in revenue; his opponents say too much emphasis is placed on making money and not enough on fighting actual crimes.

There’s no arguing that managing the sheriff’s budget has been uppermost on the sheriff’s mind, but Harn says his main focus “was, is, and always will be public safety first.”

“Following a reorganization of the entire sheriff’s office I initiated on Day 1, we have reduced major crimes by being proactive in enforcement, and aggressive with arresting criminals,” Harn said.

He also cites his decision to redeploy deputies to create “a high-profile road presence” and make aggressive traffic stops, an approach he calls “proactive policing.” (Deputies patrol 757 square miles, which include Interstate 39 on the east side of the county.)

“Overall, arrests are up by over four times, which is a major deterrent to criminals, and major crimes have decreased,” Harn said, adding that deputies might be on the road, but they still assist detectives with a cases that include drug deals and burglaries.

“Proactive policing has led to an annual increase of four times in our arrests, with warrant arrests increased annually by over 50 percent,” Harn said. “Burglaries in the last 3 years have been cleared at a rate of 72 percent versus a national average of just 12 percent.”

The jail holds 30 percent more detainees than when Harn took over as sheriff, including federal prisoners who bring nearly $1 million a year into the county through fees charged for their room and board, he said.

When it comes to crime fighting, though, both of his opponents say Harn is too focused on raising money, and does not pay enough attention to boots-on-the-ground community policing.

Deputies, they say, spend too much time issuing tickets and not enough time patrolling neighborhoods.

Both also cite a need to form or strengthen cooperative relationships with other agencies.

As Rock Valley’s chief of police, Drought says he’s handled all kinds of crime, most commonly theft, but also domestic violence, auto theft, vehicle burglaries, even kidnappings.

He says he’s suspicious of Harn’s numbers, especially the claim that the sheriff’s department clears 72 percent of the county’s burglaries.

“An increase in warrant arrests? There’s a game that’s being played there, as well. If other agencies make the arrest, he counts it as his, because they were processed at the jail by his officers,” Drought said.

Drought wants to refocus uniform patrols on “crime prevention in the areas where our people live.”

“If you have three units in I-39 running traffic enforcement, who’s responding to calls?” Drought said. “The number one crime prevention tool is having those deputies in the community. I want officers out and visible and moving around all the time.

“I’m not opposed to generating revenue, but not at the expense of having those uniformed officers in our community.”

Part of that effort is getting deputies out from behind the desk, he said.

“We need to straighten out the command structure,” Drought said. “There are too many people getting command-level pay who aren’t doing command-level work.”

Ogle County Board member Ron Colson agrees. He’s said he’s not sure how the department can justify having 60 or 70 deputies, but only three or four on the road at any given time.

“They [Drought and VanVickle] have a vaild point in calling for more community policing and less emphasis on I-39,” a process Colson said started with Sheriff Mel Messer and was perpetuated by Sheriff Greg Beitel, and now Harn. “I think it’s a bad thing that’s just been perpetuated.”

VanVickle has said that he doesn’t think Harn’s crime-fighting methods “are anything but reactionary.” He, too, says the sheriff is too focused on raising money through traffic tickets and the like.

“I believe the taxpayers would better served to have deputies in our community, as opposed to sitting on I-39.

“While enforcing traffic laws and generating revenue is one of the important jobs of the office, it should not be the primary focus of the deputies,” VanVickle said. “Combatting and preventing drug use and sales, burglaries and thefts should be the primary focus.”

To that end, he promises to form a drug-task-force-plus: The “Countywide Street Crimes Unit” would be used to develop working relationships with all county and regional law enforcement agencies – which VanVickle says has not been a concern of Harn’s – as well as battle street crime.

“This group of highly motivated deputies and officers will be our front line in combating drug use, drug sales, gang crimes and property crimes related to these issues,” VanVickle said.

He also wants to create a school liaison officer program.

Drought also pledges to strengthen the department’s relationships with emergency response and management agencies, and to work more closely with the State Police.

Harn makes no apologies for his methods.

“We will continue to be proactive on patrol, and aggressively pursue criminals who make the mistake of preying on our citizens,” he said. “We have elements from outside the county who come here to deal drugs. We have formed interagency alliances with municipal police and the State Police to combat this problem aggressively. Drugs lead to other problems, such as theft, burglary and so on.

“The way to stop criminals from preying on our residents is by making a statement: Not in our county.”

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