We endorse Tom Dart in the Democratic primary for Cook County sheriff

We endorse Tom Dart in the Democratic primary for Cook County sheriff

Keeping track of the ballot for the Democratic primary for Cook County sheriff has taken some work.

Carmen Navarro Gercone, chief rival to incumbent Tom Dart, was removed from the ballot by the Cook County Electoral Board on May 3, following an appeal by Dart claiming that Gercone’s presence did not comply with a 2021 law requiring that anyone running for sheriff be a certified law enforcement officer.

Gercone hardly lacks a law enforcement resume. She attained the rank of first assistant executive director in the sheriff’s office under Dart and has been a sergeant, a lieutenant and an assistant chief at the sheriff’s office. But although she told us she teaches at the Chicago Police Academy, she’d never been a certified police officer, per the so-called SAFE-T Act, being as trained correctional officers are not certified law-enforcement officers. Present sheriffs are grandfathered into compliance, although Dart has reportedly received additional police certification.

On May 23, though, Gercone’s name was reinstalled on the ballot by a Cook County judge who lambasted the board as misreading the law and guilty of “a clear dereliction of duty.” On Monday, Dart’s campaign told us they were appealing that ruling. Their argument, in essence, is that the law is the law and voters deserve clarity.

All of these campaign shenanigans aside, we’re nonetheless endorsing Dart, with a reminder that crime remains one of Cook County’s most debilitating problems and that he needs to double down on his innovative solutions.

As with so many other areas of government, the COVID-19 pandemic was a colossal challenge for Cook County Jail, which is under Dart’s purview. Dart described it in this newspaper as “a highly contagious, deadly new disease in a confined setting where you are legally forced to house thousands of people.” There were calls for decarceration, but Dart argued those petitions tended to forget that 80% of the detainees are awaiting trial for offenses. In most cases, he said, they are there because a judge decided they could not be trusted if out on bail.

It’s worth remembering that at the height of COVID-19, prosecutors and judges made every effort to avoid incarceration, but that’s hardly possible in every case. Dart had to play the hand he was dealt and he did a good job when it came to testing, vaccinations and even, to the degree possible, social distancing. While there were many cases in the jail, inevitably, the institution was not, as widely feared, overwhelmed by COVID-19, due in no small part to Dart’s efforts.

We’ve also supported Dart’s willingness to speak out against the violent proliferation of so-called ghost guns, the untraceable weapons that often show up in crimes and that sometimes are assembled from kits. Taking his cue from the sheriff’s rank-and-file police, who were seeing many of these guns on the streets, Dart proposed legislation to remove them and he has spoken loud and often on the matter.

Beyond even that, Dart has broadened the definition of what a Cook County sheriff can be, expanding his thinking from the maintenance of law and order to the greater good of the community. We admire the breadth of his lens and his ability to look beyond the walls of his own institution and think about such matters as how eventually defer return to their communities and, in many cases, their need for mental health support. Not every sheriff sees that as part of the office. But as we have often noted on this page, that kind of holistic approach is the only way to face down the scourge of violent crime in the long term. And there are few better bully pulpits than the sheriff’s office.

Dart tells us that he intends to focus more on redeploying his 600-strong force of sheriff’s police to aid the Chicago Police Department in high-crime neighborhoods. “I always tell people it’s not that we’re any smarter,” he told us, “but we are adding more officers combined with more community resources. Since we’ve been present in Austin, homicides have dropped precipitously.”

He’s also trying to aid suburbs, such as Harvey, where the numbers of police officers have dropped. Dart also now has a presence in the Loop, where he staffs a public safety office at 500 N. Clark St. Soon, he said, another will open at the behest of the business community near Clark and Dearborn streets, a troubled corner when it comes to gun violence. “I tell my officers we have to be out of our cars, walking around and highly visible,” he said. “If people are going to come back out and about downtown with their families, they need to know that we get it and that we’re trying to help.”

That’s the kind of thinking we need. We’ve read the compelling personal story of Noland Rivera, a Chicago police officer, and we hope that Gercone, who knows the department, gets to stay on the ballot.

Gercone told us that her top priority would be to “open up the $600 million-plus budget” and “let people see where the money is going.” She also said the current electronic monitoring system “is not being used the way it should be.” She noted that Pizza Hut has a more accurate tracking system than the county does for those being monitored.

“The first thing I want to do is make sure that the equipment the sheriff’s office purchased is actually compatible with the systems in use,” she said. Gercone also said she would reform how mostly female victims of domestic violence are treated; that’s a big deal in a county that issues some 25,000 orders of protection a year. Dart might listen to that in his next term.

There’s no one on the Republican side of the June 28 primary and Libertarians have only the unopposed Brad Sandefur, a 32-year sheriff’s department veteran, running on the slogan “put enforcement back into law enforcement.”

A very reasonable concern, but not the whole story.

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