Caught in the midst of the continuing dispute pitting the Trump administration against Cook County and the City of Chicago, suburban police departments may find their funding cut in coming weeks.
The U.S. Justice Department gave Cook County and its largest city until last Friday to challenge its preliminary finding, issued this month, that the county and city are violating federal law by adopting policies limiting their cooperation with federal authorities on immigration policies. The county responded on Friday that its policies comply with the law, and contended that the Justice Department’s finding relies on an “overly broad reading of the statute” that conflicts with the Department’s own position in other contexts.
At risk are grant funds from the federal government that represent a drop in the bucket to the large law enforcement budgets of Chicago and Cook County; grant money for the fiscal year 2016 amounted to $2.3 million. But about half of that grant money is typically passed on to local suburban departments, which may lose funding for everything from patrol officers to Tasers regardless of their immigration policies.
“We’re mostly residential communities,” said Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel. “We don’t have the large retail tax base that metropolitan areas do, so our budgets are limited.”
The dispute has simmered since April, when the U.S. Justice Department listed Cook County and the City of Chicago among nine jurisdictions around the country that could be cut off from certain federal public safety grant money for failing to fully cooperate with immigration authorities.
Both the county and its largest city have adopted so-called sanctuary city ordinances restricting their inquiries into residents’ immigration status, restricting immigration agents’ access to their facilities, and assuring them that they will not be detained or turned over to the federal government if the request from federal officials is not accompanied by a warrant signed by a judge.
The grant money at issue, officially the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, named for a fallen New York officer, has been provided to states and local communities from the federal government since 2006. It has been used in Cook County to help launch projects such as a cooperative court program to address prostitution and trafficking and a program to support sexual assault victims, and to fund various public safety needs of suburban governments. The Department of Justice website highlights three Cook County initiatives as among the grant program’s successes.
But the Justice Department is threatening to withhold money for Cook County under the grant, contending the city and county have failed to certify that they are not blocking local law enforcement officers from communicating with federal officials about the immigration status of those detained.
The Justice Department in July also attempted to add more conditions on future grants under the program, requiring greater cooperation by applicants with federal immigration agents. The new provisions would have required local jurisdictions to notify federal authorities up to 48 hours in advance of the release of detainees suspected of immigration violations, and to provide immigration officials access to local jails.
Threatened with the loss of funding, the City of Chicago filed suit against Attorney General Jeff Sessions in federal court. Senior U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber for the Northern District of Illinois issued a nationwide injunction last month against the new restrictions that Sessions sought to impose, ruling the attorney general had exceeded his authority both by the 48-hour notice requirement and by the access requirement.
But Leinenweber upheld a third provision, ruling that Congress had duly authorized the Justice Department to demand certification from local jurisdictions that they were not preventing law enforcement officials from communicating with immigration officials..
The United States Conference of Mayors has sought to join the lawsuit, filing its own motion last week challenging the final provision. The mayors argue that the Justice Department is exceeding its authority in the way it is finding that local jurisdictions are not complying with the law, demanding cooperation beyond what the law provides.
An Injustice Watch analysis of the grant records from 2012 and 2015 showed that the grant money distributed amounted to more than one percent of the budget for about one-third of the police departments that were Cook County grant recipients. For one department, the Village of Golf police, the grant amounted to nine percent of the department’s total budget that year.
Many suburban police chiefs, like Weitzel in Riverside, said the money helped fund
important programs and equipment that the departments would not otherwise be able to afford.
“It’s expanding and enhancing our ability to police,” said the Riverside chief. He said that his police department has applied for funds from Cook County each of the eight years he has been the chief. Riverside has received grants as small as $8,000 and as large as $100,000 under the program. “In these small suburban towns,” Weitzel said, “we don’t have the dollars to fund the programs and equipment that we’d like.”
For Riverside, this has most recently meant using grant funds to update the police department’s radio system, add a summer bike patrol, and supply squad cars with laptop computers, among other things. But Weitzel highlighted that the uses of these grants can be even more fundamental.
“We’re not asking for toys, we’re asking for things we need to continue to do our job or enhance our services,” he said, noting that Riverside had previously used grant funds for “as basic a tool for police officers” as bulletproof vests. “There’s a basic officer safety issue.”
Police departments try not to use grant funds for basic needs. “Do we count on that money? No, we don’t,” said Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas. “We don’t rely on that ‘cause you don’t always get it.” Police chiefs in Westchester and Evanston echoed his sentiments, calling the money helpful but not critical to their budgets
Even in Forest Park, though, the funds have been used to purchase Tasers and add additional patrol officers, seemingly fundamental expenses, and Aftanas wondered about the possibility of replacing the department’s canine vehicle and reviving its currently suspended canine unit.
Bill Joyce, chief of police for South Chicago Heights, framed the importance of the grant funds as part of keeping a struggling overall village budget afloat. In late 2015 the funds amounted to 1.56% of the department’s fiscal year 2016 budget. “Due to our geographical location, we face many financial challenges,” he said. “Economic development is almost at a standstill with business opportunities fleeing south to Will County and east to Indiana to avoid the Cook County and Illinois tax burdens…but we still have to provide services.”
Grant funds have allowed the department to reduce its costs by acquiring mobile data terminals for squad cars, enabling officers to be dispatched and complete reports through a computer and helping reduce the costs associated with these day-to-day tasks.
Joyce said he was concerned that existing funding assistance for public safety and infrastructure does not do enough to support struggling towns. “I feel like communities like ours are left to die on the vine,” he said.
Weitzel, of Riverside, said that at meetings of the West Suburban Chiefs of Police Association, grant funding is a frequent topic.
“It used to be, ‘Hey, here’s the grant funding period, make sure you don’t miss the dates,” he said. “But lately it’s been, ‘The funding might not be available, we’re hearing this and that.’ Our response as chiefs is, ‘Please take a second before you cut funding’…the grant fundings aren’t wish lists—they’re actual requests that chiefs make throughout the county that they have to justify.”