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Q&A: New Peoria County Sheriff Watkins is eager to face the office’s many current challenges

Peoria County Interim Sheriff Chris Watkins is taking over a department facing staffing shortages, budget concerns, and changing state laws regarding law enforcement.
Joe Deacon
Peoria County Interim Sheriff Chris Watkins is taking over a department facing staffing shortages, budget concerns, and changing state laws regarding law enforcement.

Chris Watkins is now into his third week as Peoria County's interim sheriff, ascending to the position following the resignation of former Sheriff Brian Asbell.

Watkins will get to drop that “interim” tag in November as he runs unopposed for the office after winning the Republican nomination last month.

He says he's making a quick transition into the top spot with the department facing staffing shortages, budget concerns, and changing state laws regarding law enforcement.

In an interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Watkins discusses how he plans to take on the many challenges.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chris, you've been the interim Peoria County Sheriff now for a couple of weeks and you're running unopposed in November. How do you feel your transition into the position has gone?

Sheriff Chris Watkins: I haven't had a chance to really let it even set in right now; I hit the ground running. We have a lot of issues that we're dealing with, with staffing. We had three command personnel retire in the last month or two, so just building my team up is been a lot of work. But we're looking forward to what we're going to tackle in the near future.

You’ve said you’d kind of been building into the position before Sheriff Asbell retired anyway.

Watkins: Correct. I was part of his command team, so we've been dealing with these issues for years now. It's just now I get to really focus on the jail, because that's really where our issues are at with staffing. We're down over 20 officers, so I'm trying to hit the ground running, trying to get our recruiting up. We've already made three hires in the last week since I've been sworn in, and we’ve tested – we had about 12 people show up today. We're starting to see an increase in applicants, so I'm positive; we'll get there for sure.

We'll get to that in just a second. But first, in his resignation letter, former Sheriff Brian Asbell said that there are “major operational and budgetary decisions that need to be made by the county board” regarding the sheriff's office. What are some of those decisions, and how would you categorize your negotiations with the board?

Watkins: It's budget season, so right now we have to set in our revenues and our expenditures. We run about a $19-20 million budget, so it's one of the biggest budgets for Peoria County government. So right now we're just working, we have a chief financial officer that me and my team, we talk, we plan things out, we try to predict what next year looks like. So I'm confident we'll get to a resolution; we'll find out next couple of weeks.

But the board's been already really good with me, so we're building that trust and those relationships. They swore me in within a week of Sheriff Asbell appointing me – well, they appointed me; they voted unanimously. So I think they have that confidence in me and my team to make the right decisions, and I want to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars, obviously, too.

So as you mentioned, staffing has been the major issue right now, specifically with corrections officers. What efforts are you going to make to try and hire more workers for the county jail?

Watkins: We're really ramping up our social media outtake of showing what we do at the sheriff's office. There's so many different jobs at the sheriff's office, between corrections, deputies, records, process servers, courthouse security. There's a lot of different things you can do, and once you become one of our employees, you can kind of pick what you want to do. Whatever career path you choose, like I started in corrections but then I chose to be a deputy and then work my way up from there. So it's a great starting point (for) whatever you want to do in your career.

So we're trying to put that out there to let people know. Sheriff Asbell worked very hard on getting our pay up there to be competitive with other markets, which our market is not just Sangamon County or Champaign County; that used to be what we kind of compared our salaries and our pay off of. Now you really have to look at our local market: what's East Peoria police paying their officers, because that's who's taking our officers is other departments. So we have to be competitive with them.

Now the Illinois State Police, they became very aggressive on their lateral program, so we're trying to keep our officers from going there. They pay better (and) they have some other options, they can offer better insurance. So we still need to constantly be marketable as a good place to work. Moving forward, I have to make sure we're doing that.

Do you have a recruitment bonus in place right now?

Watkins: Yeah, I started one about a year and a half ago, and it was the highest in the state. For deputies, a lateral deputy, they come in at $15,000 (bonus). Across the country, you're starting to see $20-30-40,000, because everyone is going through the same staffing crisis. I'm sure Peoria PD is going through it; I've been having daily talks with the Peoria chief.

That's the problem with our staffing crisis with the CEOs: Usually, not all, but at least half of the corrections officers would start at corrections, build that base as a 21-year-old, build your resume, do that for a few years, then become a police officer, if it's with us or anywhere else. Well now, because of the police staffing shortage, they're skipping that step and going right into a police officer at 21 years old. It's OK; we understand.

But also, our community might suffer a little bit because now you have 21-year-olds out there not having that (experience). Being a correctional officer, you kind of get to know the people that come in and out of the doors of the jail; unfortunately a lot of it is repeat offenders. So you deal with those type of people on the street. Well, if you've established a good relationship with them while you're working in the jail, that carries over (and) makes you a better police officer, right? You’ve learned your de-escalation skills while being a correction officer, and you just learn how to talk to people. That's one thing we're seeing with the younger generation is we're behind our screens all the time (and) you're not developing that social skills that we would like to see. Well, being a correctional officer, you develop them very quickly.

With the jail as understaffed as it is, are you using overtime? And with that, then how do you avoid the current correctional officers experiencing burnout or getting worn out?

Watkins: Correct, and what we've decided to do is we're paying double time. It used to be if you worked more than eight hours, you got time and a half; now we're paying double time. But honestly, with our employees it's not all about money, right? They want to be home with their family. So, we say “attrition leads to more attrition” – when people are getting forced to work 16 hours a day at least three or four days a week, they can't sustain that. They don't want that for their families. They're going to move on.

So we're already starting to see a little bit of a decline in overtime, which is great, because we've got a couple more people through the door and they're on their own already. So we're moving in the right direction (and) I'm confident a year from now I'll be talking to you and I think it will be at least half of that (vacancies). We’ll be manageable.

You mentioned it's an issue all across the country, all across the region. Why is it so hard to get people into law enforcement positions right now?

Watkins: Well, I think the climate, especially in Illinois, has been kind of rough on law enforcement last few years. With civil unrest, and you see what's going on in Chicago, if they can go to a different state that supports their police a little bit more, we've seen that. We've seen that locally with some of our officers going to Texas, Arizona, Florida to be police officers because they really support their police.

We are starting to see the tide change where now we're starting to see public officials really grasp how important the police are to the community. So we're seeing that in the last year or so, especially after civil unrest. We saw, when police kind of take a step back, what happens in the community: crime skyrockets, and we know our public officials don't want to see that again. So we know how important our police are in our community and in the state.

We still have to be creative. I need to talk to our legislators on how to incentivize being a police officer – if that's like a property tax credit. You’ve just got to think outside the box to keep police here, because the last thing you want to do is have another staffing crisis without police because that's when you'll see chaos.

You mentioned crime skyrocketing with a lack of support. How are the crime statistics in Peoria county looking right now?

Watkins: I met with the Peoria Police Chief (Eric Echevarrria) last week and he kind of went over the stats; it looked like at the beginning of the year, it's better this year than last year. I think the last couple of weeks have been pretty rough on the city of Peoria. We don't get the shootings out in the county.

People really don't understand the difference between the sheriff and the police chief. The police chief is over the Peoria PD, the city limits – Peoria city limits. Then the sheriff has the jail, process, courthouse security, and also everything outside the city limits – all the unincorporated area (and) also the smaller communities like Brimfield, and there's some small communities that have their own police department, but we also support them. Also Peoria PD and us, we work closely together because crime doesn't really differentiate between the city and the county. So we have that good relationship with them.

But like I was getting at with the Peoria County, we don't get those shootings out in the county. We get a lot of property crime. One thing that's been great, we don't get the residential burglaries like we used to. We used to get those sprees where we'd see 15 or 20 houses get broken into in a month or two in the summer. We don't get that as much anymore, because I think a lot has to do everyone has cameras now. That's been a huge tool, like the Ring doorbell camera, all kinds of different cameras. That's been a very good investigative tool for us, so we've seen that kind of decline.

But what we're worried about is what happens after the 1st of the year with the no-cash bail, how that looks also.

That was going to be my next question. You mentioned to me before about with the implementation of the SAFE-T Act becoming law on Jan. 1, and how difficult it's going to be to transition to the no-cash bail system. What concerns or issues is the department going to have?

Watkins: There's a lot of unknown. The first thing is trying to build the infrastructure to support the no-cash bail. To really make it simple, what no-cash bail means is: right now, (for) most offenses, you get a bond. So if it's a burglary or a shooting, you get some type of bond where you need a certain amount of money to get out of jail. After Jan. 1, now you'll still get arrested for the serious crimes (where) you'll still go in front of a judge, but that judge will have to decide to detain you until your trial, or let you out on pretrial release, in which then you're assigned like a probation officer (and) you have to check in with them until your trial or whatever happens with your case.

So we just don't know what that looks like. We have probably at least 30% of the jail population is in on some type of bond. So starting in December, those people will start seeing judges to decide what they do: Do they keep them until their trial, or do they decide to release them on pretrial release? One of the factors is you have to show that that person is a specific threat to a specific person. A lot of crimes, there is not a victim; it's the victim, the society – if a felon has a gun, those type of crimes. So it's going to be interesting how that plays out in the court system.

The good thing is we have a great Chief Judge (Katherine Gormon) right now, and we've been having weekly monthly meetings to try to set this infrastructure up. Peoria County already has a quasi-pretrial release program; we just have to build it up more to match the no-cash bail. There's a lot of counties in Illinois that have no infrastructure at all, so they're going to be way behind the curve and they're rushing to get this done by Jan. 1, which is going to come up very, very quickly.

One of the unknowns is we don't know what the jail population will look like; we don't know if that'll probably drop. But most likely we'll see a decrease in jail population, but we don't know what happens after these individuals – say someone that's broken into a few houses and has been arrested for burglary, they are not held; they are on pretrial release. From our experience, those people keep doing that because of drug addiction– they're actually, some of them are decent people (but) just they're addicted to drugs, and the drug takes over and they're going to do the next thing to get their next high.

So now they're not in jail getting that break, getting the substance abuse treatment that we provide in jail to them. Now they're back on the street doing the same thing over, and we're fearful you're going to see more overdoses (or) they keep committing crimes. I think eventually a judge will see, “hey, you were just arrested a month ago for a burglary (and) now you're back in here again for burglary.” Now they're going to have to try to make a decision to keep that individual, but I don't know if the law will even allow them to keep that individual.

There's a lot going on, and we're going to really have to sit and observe this for about a year to see what happens with the jail population. Does our property crime go through the roof? We don't know. There's a couple of states, California and New York, who have no-cash bail, but they also have certain offenses that still do have some type of bail. We’ll be one of the first states that truly has no bail.

I get the concept of why they did it; innocent until proven guilty, you should be free until your case is done. But unfortunately, some of these people have committed the crime. Our state's attorney (Jodi Hoos) does a pretty good job on if there's a good probable cause, they want them to sit in jail until trial because they are a danger to society. So it's going to be very interesting to see how this goes, and there'll be some challenges and growing pains. But I plan on being very transparent and vocal with our legislators on, “Hey, this is working or this is not working,” so everyone's informed so we can make an educated decision when moving forward.

Peoria County Interim Sheriff Chris Watkins is sworn in by 10th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Katherine Gorman during a ceremony on July 8, 2022.
Peoria County
Peoria County Interim Sheriff Chris Watkins is sworn in by 10th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Katherine Gorman during a ceremony on July 8, 2022.

Are there other provisions of the SAFE-T Act apart from the no-cash bail that the sheriff's department is going to have to prepare for?

Watkins: There's a lot more mandated training. We've already been ramping up our training; the first week of August, we're running all of our deputies through active shooter training, with everything going on. All deputies get a week long in the academy; that's not enough though. We want to make sure our deputies– we've seen what has happened nationwide with active shooters, so we want to make sure they have the adequate training. But also there's a lot more training mandates moving forward. So we are going to have to spend a lot more time and money on training, which is good as long as we get the funding for it. That's the main thing, getting funding for training.

The SAFE-T Act is a huge bill. We were already set in place – we've had body cameras for years now already. Some departments, they're scrambling trying to get that infrastructure already set in place. We were already doing a lot of the SAFE-T Act. One thing that was brought up was the qualified immunity; That's kind of been tabled from what I've seen. A lot of officers that were ready to retire, once that was on the table though, the damage was done already; they left. So now that's quieted down, which is good. So know that we're already doing a lot of the stuff that's already in the SAFE-T Act. But the no-cash bail definitely is my biggest concern right now, to see what that looks like moving forward.

You mentioned the active shooter training and that was going to be another one of my questions. With everything that we've seen recently, how prepared is the sheriff's office for either intervening in a mass shooting event or possibly preventing it before it happens?

Watkins: We've been preparing for this for a long time. We've had a couple of lieutenants really be the pioneers of school violence (prevention). It's amazing how many threats that we get, especially during obviously the school year, but we treat every one very seriously. We have a detective assigned immediately – even if it's a 10-year-old who puts something online or says something to the school bus driver – we immediately have a detective at their house that night, seeing if they have access to weapons. I mean, we average 30 (threats) a school year, so it's a lot. We don't want to blow any one off, because the one that you kind of overlook is the one that that's going to happen.

We're starting to see a decline in school threats. This year was actually a lot less than 30, and I think the word is out there that, “hey, you're going to have a police officer, you're going to have a detective out to your house.” We've had some incidents where kids were very serious about, “Yes, I'm going to do this.” So that's when we get mental health involved, because obviously there's something going on there at home (and) the kid can't control himself.

We are seeing a lot (of an) uptick on mental health calls with juveniles since COVID, because now not going to school (and) being stuck at home, and just the stuff they've been experiencing. So we're starting to see that uptick. The schools are doing a great job; we meet with all the superintendents. We are developing plans; we're planning tabletop exercises.

We're trying to train– I went out to Quantico (Va.) for two weeks to train with the FBI about three years ago, specifically on just active shooter events. I worked with the FBI agents that ran that Las Vegas shooting (and) the Aurora (Colo.) movie theater shooting, and we debriefed those. So I've learned from what they did, some of the mistakes that were made there. I'm confident; I hope we never have to deal with it, but we are preparing (for a) worst-case scenario.

With the jail population? Where's it at right now; do you have capacity?

Watkins: Right now, we're around 300 (detainees). We're starting to see a slow increase because of summer, that usually happens. We were at 280 a couple of weeks ago, so we're starting to see a little bit of increase but that happens every year. Back when I first started at the jail, we were over 500 people. So the courts have done a good job on keeping– like I said, our population right now is: most of them, they're doing days for repeat offenders. But a lot of them are in on some violent crimes, and they should be locked up, honestly.

Another aspect of that is with our reentry program, because we suspended that due to COVID; we were not letting outsiders in the jail. Well, it's been a couple years now so– and with staffing, it was hard to run those programs, because it takes a lot of employees to move those pieces around and make that work. I have a goal by October to get those running, too.

But that goes along with the no-cash bail; our reentry program was targeting people who are doing six months in jail – for a couple of DUIs or some nonviolent offenses; those are the ones we were trying to target so when they get out of jail, they become a positive member of society. I'm trying to build that infrastructure back up. We're going to have a forklift certification program attached to this, so we're trying to give them the tools (so that) when they do get out, they can get a job. Give them driver’s licenses if they're eligible in jail. A lot of these guys don't even have a state ID; they have no identification. So it’s just giving them the tools. We already have a case manager for reentry, that's already set up.

But also the second half of that will be when they are on pretrial release, we also would like to have hands on them of trying to give them in the right path of getting a job. So now there's going to be two different types of reentry: there's the ones where they're in jail, and the ones that are on pretrial release. We don't want to forget about those on the pretrial release. I mean, the goal is to get these people not to reoffend and be positive members of society.

You mentioned COVID-19. I know I talked to Sheriff Asbell several times about outbreaks that occurred at the jail and how keeping inmates separate was posing a challenge. How is the pandemic affecting the jail right now?

Watkins: As of a week ago, we had 10 positives. But those positives were not very sick; some of them were asymptomatic, they were just testing positive. Right now we're at zero. I expect we're going to have those types of outbreaks, (but) as long as we manage – we have a 24/7 medical staff; we're one of the few jails that have that. So we're experts now dealing with COVID in the jail; we've been dealing with it for a long time. So it's something we have to live with moving forward, and that's what we're going to do.

A couple of weeks ago, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association objected to a new executive order from Governor JB Pritzker that continues a suspension of transferring mentally ill inmates from county jails to state facilities. What kind of burden does this place on your office and what needs to happen?

Watkins: When that happened, I had no idea what we were sitting on in the jail. So I did some research, I met with our superintendent and I saw that we had eight detainees that have been sentenced to DHS (Illinois Department of Human Services) already. One of them has been sitting there since March of 2021; I was mind-blown when I found that out. That individual goes, sees a judge every other month; that judge does a court order saying, “waiting on DHS, waiting on a bed opening.” They've already been tried, their cases over with, they've been found unfit, and now they're sitting in the county jail. We have a mental health specialist, but still, that's not where they should be.

These are also the people who are causing problems with our correctional officers. They're being violent because they're not getting the full treatment that they probably should be getting at a state facility. So it is taxing, and I couldn't believe that we're sitting on that many. I think, since I did an interview last week on this, we've had two leave since then, so I think being vocal about it is helping.

But I want zero. If a judge has ordered somebody to go to a mental health facility that's not the county jail, that's where they should go ASAP, right? But I suspect that they're going through staffing issues like everybody else is. We knew DOC, Department of Corrections, they were really holding off for a while on taking our detainees also that have been sentenced because of staffing and COVID. But guess what – we're dealing with the same thing. So let's hope that that doesn't happen and we get these people to the facilities that they need, because the jail now has become a mental health facility and we've never seen it before. Now we expect our corrections officers to deal with this, and that leads to more attrition. They don't want to deal with the stuff that they're dealing with right now, I can tell you. There's some individuals that can't control themselves, and they're doing bad things down there and our COs have to deal with it.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.