Based on its crime statistics, Elk Grove Village is a relatively safe community.
But it appears being a public official in the northwest suburb carries a degree of risk.
We recently learned the municipality has spent nearly $25,000 on “dignitary” protection training for their police officers since 2012, primarily to keep elected and appointed village officials safe in the wake of threats and harassment over the years.
The money covered travel, lodging and any fees associated with the classes.
In June an Elk Grove Village police commander attended a “protective service training” course in Maryland at a cost to taxpayers of just over $1,900, records show.
In spring, a commander underwent a similar training class in Florida, with a tab of around $4,400 for two weeks.
A year earlier, a sergeant and an officer went to California for an “advanced threat assessment & management” course at a combined cost of almost $9,000.
In July 2012, four officers went to Georgia for training at a total cost of $3,354.40.
There were other local training sessions, too.
This doesn’t mean Elk Grove Village’s mayor, Craig Johnson, or any of the trustees have regular drivers and bodyguards, we’re told by village officials. Rather, the cops are being trained to provide protection if and when specific threats emerge – “as needed,” Johnson said – as well as to root out and prevent threats to village officials.
And from what we’re told, there indeed have been troubles over the years.
The young daughter of one elected leader in town picked up the family’s house phone in the 1990s and was told she would be killed because she was the daughter of the village official, George Knickerbocker, Elk Grove Village’s municipal attorney, told us in a letter. “A Federal Protective Order was issued . . . against the caller. To date, there have been numerous other threats and disturbing matters against the Mayor and the Trustees, as well as Village Staff, which can be documented if requested. Moreover, there are many documented incidents of violence against elected officials throughout the country in recent years.”
“As a result, approximately three years ago, the Village Board unanimously decided to put certain security measures in place, including training of many police officers in the area of protective service. In making the unanimous decision, the Board considered not only the above threats and concerns, but in addition, were cognizant of recent tragedies throughout the country involving elected officials and other state and local employees.”
Knickerbocker elaborated later, emphasizing that threats and harassment aren’t an everyday occurrence. But, he added, “I think there’s a comfort level knowing there are people trained” to deal with problems as they occur – for government officials, and even visiting dignitaries.
Fred Hayes, president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s not unusual for towns to send officers through dignitary protection training, but it’s less common for that training to be geared toward security for officials in small or mid-sized municipalities.
The key, Hayes said, is making sure communities really need it and aren’t simply playing to the vanity of local politicians – which he said he encountered years back when, as police chief in Joliet, he rebuffed an attempt by the then-mayor of the far southwest suburb to create “an escort protection detail.” The Joliet mayor had met with then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley about something and, seeing Daley’s impressive bodyguard entourage, decided he, too, deserved a security detail, Hayes said.
“Luckily we were able to convince him otherwise,” Hayes said.
Bryan Hillis is president and principal consultant at Indiana-based Alexander Global Strategies, which trains cops and others on protecting dignitaries. His group did classroom and field training for Elk Grove Village officers earlier this year, records show.
“In the law enforcement community I’ve seen the training increase,” Hillis said. In other words, in his experience more municipalities are training their cops in dignitary protection – either because threats are increasing and local police want to know how to better deal with them, or because agencies want “to be one step ahead of potential threats,” Hillis said.
We’ve scrutinized taxpayer-funded security details over the years because of the expense, and because some politicians have used bodyguards as chauffeurs and coat holders.
We once documented how an employee tasked with providing security for Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas picked up her dry cleaning, and shuttled her to and from workout sessions.
We haven’t heard of similar issues in Elk Grove Village, and Johnson said nobody’s picking up take-out for government officials or anything like that. He said this is about public safety for public servants.
“There has been a persistent pattern of threats for the past 15, 16 years,” Johnson said. “Calls, letters, in person threats, we’ve had them all. Emails.”
Many of the security concerns over the years have involved people upset over some action – or perceived lack of action – by the village government, officials said.
At least one potentially serious threat directed at Johnson in recent years ended in an arrest of someone angry over an aspect of the O’Hare Airport expansion fight, officials said. Elk Grove Village was one of several suburbs that fought the construction of new runways at the Chicago-owned airport.
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9030.