After 46 years in law enforcement one thing Tazewell County Sheriff Robert M. Huston knows is that every day on the job is different. He said being in law enforcement is all he has ever wanted to do. He started his career in 1972 in Morton.
As the Chief Law Officer of the county, Huston has many duties. He is also the only Law Enforcement Official elected by the people. He was elected directly by voters into this position since 1998. For the fiscal year 2018 his salary is $113,028.
His day begins by checking his messages around 5:30 a.m. Huston said if there is an emergency, everything else waits. He exercises six days a week. Once he arrives at work a little before 9 a.m. he has plenty to keep him busy until his official day is over at 5 p.m. On days there is a County Board meeting he is usually at work until 8 or 9 p.m. and on days he needs to be in Springfield he is on the road around 8 a.m.
Huston said once he is at the office he generally stays in the office and even has lunch at his desk. As Sheriff, Huston has numerous responsibilities.
Huston must uphold the law enforcement mission and serve as the warden of the county jail. He also serves as custodian of the courthouse which means his office provides security at the Tazewell County Courthouse. The sheriff also oversees police functions such as public safety and crime prevention, and is responsible for the civil process division which serves warrants along with Orders of Protection. Although he has never had to enact Posse Comitatus, he has the authority in a public safety emergency to call upon anyone to help by deputizing people.
Tazewell County is the 15th largest county of the 102 in the state of Illinois. With a county of its size comes challenges. Huston said one of the biggest challenges was overcome early on in his career as the sheriff, but is creeping up again.
“We had a small outdated facility when I was elected in ‘98,” Huston said. “In 2000 we ran a campaign and we passed a Public Safety Sales Tax referendum to build the building where we are now which helped at the time. Now the cost isn’t covering everything. Expenses have gone up and revenue has gone down. Now they’re facing a deficit.”
After the 90,000-square-foot jail was built and the 229 beds were installed, Huston had more than that to consider. Everything needed to be thought of for the new place. He and others needed to figure out where to locate offices, design the crime lab that is downstairs, lay out a jail design, figure out how the jail would be supervised, when the lights would come on in the morning, when to turn them off, how to handle violent inmates, where inmates with mental health issues would be housed, the medical care facility because they have a nurse on duty 12 hours per day among other design challenges.
With the budget once again presenting an issue, Huston looked at the size and population of Tazewell County. He said they have not added a deputy to the force since 1999 in manpower. Currently, they have 40 deputies.
Huston said, “If we had a typical crime rate we should have built a jail with at least 300 beds and we should have between 60 to 65 deputies with our size — more deputies if our crime rate was higher. I don’t feel understaffed in the jail, but do with deputies.”
There are 130 employees in the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Department. The number includes the jail staff, jail superintendent, deputies, Chief Deputy, Chief Clerk among other positions.
Huston said that within the law enforcement side of the department is the Criminal Investigations Division. Capt. Tim Gillespie leads the division and the division provides assistance to smaller agencies in the county. Orders of Protection come through this division. Huston said they come over every afternoon and that they are immediately processed and then get sent out for service.
“We will put our resources with their (city or town) Chief of Police,” Huston said.
The Patrol Division has jurisdiction over all of Tazewell County but concentrates on the unincorporated areas. There is a Records Division, K-9 Division, and Crime Prevention.
The Sheriff’s Department is involved in the D.A.R.E. Program. Its major emphasis is presented to fifth- and sixth-grade students. The program’s curriculum is “life-skills based and focuses on peer pressure resistance training, self-concept improvement, personal safety and decision making skills,” according to the department’s website.
They are also involved with the Driving Skills for Life Program and drug education programs for kids and adults. Huston said they are also part of the Tazewell County Triad program which is aimed at preventing senior citizen abuse and seniors being victimized by phone scams or home repair scams.
Huston attends the local intelligence meetings composed of law enforcement members from the tri-county area.
“We share our concerns,” he said. “Cooperation between law enforcement agencies has never been better.”
The Corrections Division includes the jail. They hold people for traffic offenses to murder. The division also houses federal inmates on a contractual basis who are awaiting trial.
Huston said, “It (the jail) is almost like a little city. We have a laundry facility, kitchen facility, religious facility, medical facility and mental health providers.”
Seventy-five percent of people in jail are pre-trial detainees. Huston said the longest time frame someone can be held in jail is 364 days if they are awaiting sentencing. He said people can be held indefinitely if they are awaiting trial.
Larry Bright was held 18 months, which was the longest, while he was on trial for murder. Huston said he was a safety risk and was segregated in the jail for his own safety.
Huston has confidence in his staff.
He said, “I’ve got a real good staff. There’s a good chain of command. I’m in a position now where I make sure people have what they need.”
Huston also serves on the Community Center Board with Tazewell County and the Executive Board for the Illinois Sheriff’s Association.
“My job takes me out of the office frequently,” he said. “I’m an advocate for our office – the Sheriff’s Department.”
He hires for the department, too. In June he will fill four positions for deputy.
“Competition is tough to be a deputy,” said Huston. “There is not much turnover. Politics has nothing to do with who gets hired. My goal is to build an outstanding police department.”
Technology advances quickly and has come a long way since Huston started in 1998. He said his office has drones that are used for accident reconstruction. The drones are capable of mapping a crime scene to scale and take images.
“They do what would normally take four hours for officers to do, one-hour for the drone,” said Huston. “If we have a barricaded suspect we can fly it out rather than send in our officers which protects our officers. We had to have a licensed pilot to operate these. Chief Deputy Jeff Lower is a fixed-wing aircraft pilot and Sgt. Chris McKinney is a helicopter pilot and is on the Central Illinois Emergency Response Team (CIERT).”
Huston’s days are always full. Crimes and emergencies do not always occur between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. so Huston is really never off work. He said he told his department he wants to be notified about certain things including fatal crashes, homicides, some CIERT calls and any time an officer is involved in a crash.
He reflected on his years in law enforcement and has several things he said he is proud of.
“After this many years it’s hard to pick one thing, but looking back at the facilities in 1998, staffing issues, training issues, we’ve built a good agency with professional staff,” said Huston. “Good people are staffed at all levels. We formed a task force — the Tazewell Teen Initiative — put together with the health department after 15 teens were killed in 15 months. The meth problem. We’ve taken an aggressive approach to tackle these problems. We’ve had manpower with other police agencies and have enjoyed some success.”
Huston did not seek re-election this year and will retire. Chief Deputy Jeff Lower won the Republican primary and will seek election this fall to become Tazewell County Sheriff. Huston said he has known Lower since 2010 and that he is “very dependable.”
“I’ll do everything I can to make the transformation as smooth as I can,” said Huston. “I feel confident I’m leaving the job in capable hands. I always wanted to be a police officer. I’ve got a great wife who I’ve been married to for 47 years. Great family. Now I’ll get to hand it (the job as Sheriff) off to someone I trust.”