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Q&A: Peoria County Sheriff Watkins says jail needs ‘dire help’

Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins
Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins

Peoria County is getting a new $22 million Health and Human Services campus, with an opening targeted for late summer of next year.

But what about the condition of Peoria County Jail and Sheriff's offices? Sheriff Chris Watkins says the jail houses more than 300 detainees every day, and that takes a toll on an aging facility.

In a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Sheriff Watkins talks about a variety of issues and concerns his office is facing, including the state of their buildings.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

We're going to start with the state's law on banning assault rifles. In January, you said you weren't in favor of the law, but you didn't outright say that Peoria County wouldn't enforce it. Since then, a state judge blocked the enforcement of the law and now a federal appeals judge has suspended that initial injunction. Right now, where do you stand on enforcing this ban?

Sheriff Chris Watkins: Well, the same thing I said: We'll just let the lawmakers and the judges figure it out. Obviously, there's some constitutional issues and that's why the lawsuit was filed. There's a certain process when you pass laws; they have to be constitutional and I think that's what's working out through the court system right now. So we'll just see how that goes. But yeah, I still stand by what I said.

With Peoria County moving forward on a new Health and Human Services campus, has there been any talk about replacing the corrections units or the Sheriff's offices? What are the current conditions of your facilities?

Watkins: They need dire help, and I'm in talks right now with our facilities manager in fixing that right now. We have a lot of jail cells that are closed down, so we need attention and I'm getting that. It's just a slow process. It's an old jail, and it's been used and abused. When you have 300 people living here 24/7 and they abuse our facilities also, it takes its toll real quick. So there's a laundry list of things that we're addressing here at the jail. I doubt I'll get a new jail anytime soon; it's very expensive and I understand that. But we're just addressing the issues right now because I don't want to get in the position where I don't have enough jail cells for people that are being housed here.

When you say you have a laundry list, what are some of the things that need to be taken care of?

Watkins: Plumbing. We have jail cells that we have closed, because the plumbing is not working. We need a new roof; that's in the process of being done. (There are) some exterior infrastructure issues with this building. So there's a lot, but we're getting there.

So is this something that the county could use ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars for? Do you know how that would work or anything like that?

Watkins: Yeah, they are using some ARPA. I think our roof alone is over $1 million to replace, so I think that is ARPA money, and there's some a few other projects. We literally have a meeting next week out here on what needs to be prioritized in fixing.

You say some of the jail cells are kind of closed down. What is the current inmate population in the jail in the juvenile detention center? Are you still dealing with overpopulation?

Watkins: We are at about 315 for our adult population. People think that the sheriff is over the juvenile detention center; I actually have nothing to do with the juvenile detention center. It's right next door, but that is run by the courts by statute. We obviously work together on certain issues but, no, I have nothing to do with (them).

Currently I don't know what their population is; ours fluctuates. Since I've been sheriff, it fluctuates from 280 to 320. Obviously, with the weather breaking right now and you're starting to see a little bit uptick in crime, that population will start slowly creeping up, probably to 350 possibly.

What would capacity be?

Watkins: We can hold over 550 people, but right now with jail cells there's no way I can hold that. When I first started 20 years ago, we used to have a population of 500. But because of some bail reform, that has dwindled down over the years.

Are you still experiencing a delay in transfers from the jail to the (Illinois) Department of Corrections?

Watkins: There is still a little bit of delay right now, and we're having some major issues with mental health – stuff that I've never seen before in 20 years. Right now, I have a corrections officer sitting there monitoring an individual who tried to harm himself in jail that we sent to a local hospital. And the local hospital kicked him loose two days later back to us saying it's our problem, right? So it's very frustrating. The resources are there, but I think they're also struggling with staffing and unfortunately everything gets put back on us.

I have a full-time mental health person in the jail, and she tells me that almost 70% of our population in jail has mental health issues. So you've heard this many times before from prior sheriffs. This has become just a major issue that we're dealing with here. My staff – even having a mental health professional and 24/7 medical here – it's still, we can't handle it. We can't, and there is a delay in the department. When a judge sentences somebody, by statute they're supposed to be (sent) there (to prison) within a couple of months. Well, we're not seeing that; we're holding them for several months after that. That's frustrating to see because this is not where they should be. I don't have the staffing to deal with it, I just don't. Most sheriffs don’t.

You mentioned staffing. What are the sheriff's office current staffing levels and what efforts are you making to recruit more staff and more deputies?

Watkins: We're getting better. I'm almost coming up to a year of being sheriff, and when I took over we were down 20 correctional officers and about 10 deputies. I've hired over 25 correctional officers and deputies since I've been sheriff. Technically, I should be full staff on the deputy side but because of some of the task forces that we joined – like GPAC (Greater Peoria Auto Crimes Task Force), ATF (Peoria Area Federal Firearms Task Force, PAFF), DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) – that number has kind of risen a little bit, right? So I'm trying to keep up; it's a good problem to have. We just swore in a female deputy.

The correction officers, we're still struggling a little bit. I was down 20 correction officers last July when I took over, and now I’m only down eight or nine. So we really are chipping away (and) we're doing a good job. But we're starting to see that (recruitment) slow down a little bit this spring, so we're hoping we keep chipping away at it. The good thing is we're not losing people like we were losing people; we lost a couple to law enforcement, which is always a thing (but) it’s a good thing. I want our local law enforcement to have corrections experience, because you learn a lot working in corrections. You learn how to talk to people. When you're a 22-year-old coming out of college, you just don't have that experience of talking to people. And the clientele we have here, some of them are not very good; they're manipulative. So I mean, they (corrections officers) learn real quick how to handle those type of situations.

What other efforts are you making to have more diversity among the deputies?

Watkins: The county now has two diversity and inclusion officers, so we just met with them. Right now we're doing whatever we can just to get qualified applicants. So we've probably been to seven or eight job fairs in the last six months, and we haven't been the job fair in the last three years because of COVID. So it's a very difficult situation to be in, but we're trying the best we can. It's tough.

You touched on the task forces with a couple new task forces in the Peoria area, the auto crimes task force (GPAC) and the federal firearms tax force (PAFF). What is the sheriff's office's involvement in these task forces?

Watkins: Right now currently, we have a detective assigned to the ATF task force with Peoria city (Peoria Police Department). Right now, their focus is on gun violent crime with the U.S. Attorney's Office. We have a great network between the U.S. Attorney's Office, Peoria (police) and us. We're all dealing with the same things, so it's a great collaboration of law enforcement and they can just specifically focus on violent crime, which obviously is a big deal every day that we see in Peoria.

Then we have GPAC, the Greater Peoria Auto Crimes Task Force, which I'm really excited about because we see this as affecting – there's some violent crime attached to that with the carjackings, but also – man, just: you wake up, start your car and it sounds funny, it doesn't go in drive because it doesn't have a catalytic converter. Or you wake up and your car's gone. That has a domino effect in our community, and we've never seen these type of numbers of what we're seeing prior to the last year and a half.

So now we are going to have two investigators, I think the city's going to have two or three investigators, specifically assigned to these types of crimes, which we haven't had in a long time. We used to have a task force called SLATE (State and Local Auto Theft Enforcement); I think that's probably seven or eight years ago where we had that. We saw a drop in auto thefts because of that.

Right now, it's an average of at the least almost a week, maybe a couple of days if we're lucky, to recover some of these cars. But with having these investigators, you'll see that that time will drop because we see and we know exactly where these kids dump the cars; we know exactly where they're going. Also having these cameras, the license plate reader cameras, it's helping tremendously on crime. So we have good things coming. We have a great relationship with Peoria PD. We know it's going to be a tough summer, though, and that's why we're ramping up. These task forces will help us get through the summer.

When you say that, what are your expectations for the summer? Why do you think it's going to be a tough summer?

Watkins: Just from past practice. We're seeing it; you're going to see more ShotSpotter alerts. We're already seeing in the spring once the weather breaks, and that's just history, right? It's what we deal with every year, summers get more busier, and even the winters are pretty busy as we've seen, right? But always when the weather breaks, you just see more violent crime out there.

Recently, your office posted on social media with a warning about phone scams where callers are posing as sheriff's office lieutenants. What more should the public know about these scams?

Watkins: We've been doing this for probably seven or eight years now. I mean, they use my name all the time; they just go on our website, they pick a couple of names that are legitimate employees. They use “spoof” apps that will show the phone numbers coming from a local phone number, and they target anybody that will pick up their phone and listen to them and some people believe them, right? They really target the elderly too, where they believe that their family member has a warrant or they're in jail, and they want to do what they can to get that family member out.

So the main thing is, first of all, we never call somebody and tell them, “Hey, you have a warrant, you need to bond yourself out,” on the phone. A lot of times, what they'll do is they say, “Stay on the phone. I need you to go to a local retail store and buy gift cards with money on them,” and they'll put $500 on seven gift cards. They'll stay on the phone and they'll transfer those numbers on the back of the gift cards to the people over the phone and then poof, that's money gone.

They'll show up to the sheriff's office and ask for us and say, “Hey, did my warrant get taken care of? I just paid for it over the phone,” and it's tough to watch that. They started crying because they just got scammed out of $7,000, which is some of their whole bank accounts. Just with good intentions; they're just trying to help a family member out that they thought was in jail.

So we've done a good job; we have a victims’ advocate who's really been pushing that word and we've also been putting it on social media. We've been working with retail stores: They now have training on, if they have an employee where they see an elderly person or somebody that has seven gift cards (and) they're on the cell phone and they're asking for $500 each, that's not a common thing to see, right? So they will call the police and say, “Hey, we have something that's going on here. Will you come out and talk to this individual?” We've stopped some that way too.

What are some of the other big concerns currently facing the sheriff's office that we haven't touched on yet?

Watkins: Recruitment and staffing is the main thing; we have to have police officers out there. That's something that I've been dealing with since Day One, and most agencies are dealing with that. If you see, almost every sheriff's office, police department, they’re advertising. We just, like every other career out there, everyone's kind of lack on staffing. So that's first and foremost is to get our staffing up so we can provide those services like I've talked about numerous times before. Then it's actually (being) out there enforcing the law, (fighting) crime.

We're starting to see a little bit uptick on accidents, so we're out there using our traffic grants. You can see, we're really trying to crack down on hands-free (distracted) driving, (hand-held) electronic devices. We're seeing people on phones just non-stop out there, right. So we're writing a bunch of tickets to that. I think everybody knows you're not supposed to be on the phone by now; you know, that law is seven years old, I think. So there's very few warnings; now we're writing tickets for that.

One thing I didn't touch base on is: for the first time ever, we are hiring a mental health wellness counselor that’s specifically just for our employees; we've never had that. We're seeing our employees – I have 180 employees here, 70 deputies, 60 correction officers. Police officers see over 200 traumatic incidents in their careers, usually. A normal person that's not in public safety, they see just a couple. So, we need help, too. I think this is really important; I'm really excited about actually having somebody embedded with us to actually be able to talk to our employees (and) what they're going through. We've had a lot of critical incidents in the jail and out on the street; we've had five deputies shot at, I think, the last three years. So these are critical incidents and they see a lot of trauma out there. So we need help too. So I'm excited about this.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.