Gildardo Sierra resigned from the Chicago Police Department after his involvement in two fatal shootings led to a federal investigation and lawsuits that cost the city $7.5 million.
But six months after his 2015 departure, Sierra was back in law enforcement for the Chicago Heights Park District, where his brother-in-law ran the police department.
Sierra’s unorthodox career path shines a light on an often controversial footnote of local government in Illinois—dedicated park district police departments where sworn officers, in some cases with access to military surplus semi-automatic weapons, are assigned to patrol ball diamonds and greenspace.
Such police departments are a rarity, with only 19 currently in operation among the 339 park districts spread across the state. Most districts, including Chicago’s, rely on municipal police to keep the peace.
All of which raises questions of redundancy, liability, nepotism and expense for holdout districts that still choose to go it alone on policing. Collectively, records show they spend more than $5 million annually on police operations.
Park District Police Departments
Here are five Illinois park district police departments and a breakdown of the number of police officers, squad cars, arrests and citations in June and July 2016:
Illinois has a storied history of park district police department corruption. Most famously, south suburban Dixmoor disbanded its force after the chief and a former colleague pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with selling police badges for a park district police force that had dozens of officers overseeing a single tot lot.
In the past five years alone, four Illinois park districts which had dedicated police forces opted to close them.
One of those, Memorial Park District, centered in west suburban Bellwood but also covering parts of neighboring communities, once had dozens of officers for just a smattering of recreational facilities.
Memorial recently settled a lawsuit for up to $1.7 million that claimed park cops acted like vigilantes who went on ticket-writing blitzes, often away from park property. About half of that was to refund people ticketed going back as far as 1984, with most of the rest for attorney’s fees. District insurance is picking up the costs.
“Guys love to have a badge and a wallet to flash so they can drive like idiots,” said Memorial Park District Executive Director Mari Herrell. “They cannot get on a real police department.”
One of the longtime criticisms of park district police departments has been that they can become an avenue of access for the politically connected to receive police badges. Indeed, Harrell said, one of those who received a badge from Memorial was then-state Sen. James DeLeo, even though DeLeo lived in Chicago and not in the suburbs served by the park district.
DeLeo, who did not respond to requests for comment, was a member of the department’s “auxiliary police,” an unpaid position which does not confer full police powers, Herrell said. She added that DeLeo joined the force in 2009 and would occasionally perform crowd control at large district events until 2013 when the district shut down the force. He stepped down from the Senate in 2010.
Today’s remaining roster of park police forces ranges from Rockford, with a more than $1 million budget, 5,000 acres to patrol and a dozen full time cops, to the Hawthorne district in Cicero with a $32,000 budget and three part timers to watch over 22 acres of parks and two banquet halls.
While park use generally is heaviest in the summer months, records reviewed by the Better Government Association showed not a single arrest or ticket issued last July and August by park district police officers in Chicago Heights, Calumet City, Cicero, and Morton Grove.
“Just because they’re not issuing tickets doesn’t mean they’re not out in the parks enforcing the rules,” said Morton Grove Park District executive director Jeffrey Wait. “You’re equating writing tickets to doing a service and to me that’s not the case.”
At the Round Lake Area Park District in Lake County, police haven’t recorded an arrest or written a ticket in two years, records show. Even so, the district’s arsenal of weaponry includes three military surplus M-16 semi-automatic rifles, records show.
In McHenry County, the Crystal Lake park district police also have obtained three M-16s under a federal program which donates surplus military gear to local police.
“The patrol rifles are standard things in every police department nowadays,” said Chief Dan Dziewior, who for 28 years served on the municipal Crystal Lake police force. “It’s very pinpoint and you hit exactly what you’re aiming at.”
Crystal Lake was among a group of park district police surveyed by the BGA that did issue tickets and make arrests last summer. Others that issued tickets or made arrests included park district cops in Lockport Township, Naperville and Zion.
Even as more park districts get out of the law enforcement business, the Chicago Heights park district launched its police department just five years ago.
“People get shot and killed in these parks, they get robbed, cars get stolen and set on fire,” said Chicago Heights Park District acting chief Christian Daigre. “This is not Mayberry.”
This image from 2016 shows the staff of the Chicago Heights Park District police department, including acting chief Christian Daigre (top left) and Gildardo Sierra (bottom row, fourth from left). Sierra has since been fired from the department. (Photo from Chicago Heights Park District website)
That said, park police didn’t arrest anyone last July or August, records show. Daigre said that was because his officers’ presence acted as a deterrent. In addition, the park board has yet to give its fledgling police department authority to issue tickets.
Daigre took over as acting chief last year after the suspension of Chief Jose Maldonado following drunk driving charges.
It was Maldonado, while still in charge, who hired his brother-in-law Sierra despite all that baggage from his days as a Chicago cop.
Sierra’s troubles in Chicago, where police misconduct allegations have been widespread in recent years, were the subject of intense media coverage for his connection to the shootings that led to the deaths of Flint Farmer and Darius Pinex.
Asked why Sierra was hired despite his controversial past, Frank Perez, the park district’s executive director, said, “How would we know if there was any shootings in the past?”
Even so, Sierra didn’t last long on the Chicago Heights force. The park district fired him last May after suspending Maldonado.
Perez declined to specify why Sierra was let go, noting only that at the time Sierra was still considered a probationary employee and “didn’t fit in with the department.”
Multiple messages left for Maldonado and Sierra were not returned.
Problems have persisted in other park district police forces as well.
In Rockford, the department was overhauled following a 2011 consultant’s finding that its top leaders did little work and the rank-and-file were “rife with antipathy and frustration.”
The park district has also paid more than $37,000 to settle two related whistleblower lawsuits from former officers who alleged they were fired after reporting allegations of “corruption and theft” to district officials.
In October, the park district paid $20,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused a former park district police officer, along with two Rockford municipal officers, beat a man unconscious after responding to a October 2015 domestic incident.
Torrey Turner, who filed the suit, pleaded guilty to domestic battery and resisting arrest.
The park district officer, Jason Parada, who was later hired by the Cherry Valley Police Department, said in an interview with the BGA that the man was “not beaten unconscious.”
“The way they painted it was not the way it came down,” he said. He declined further comment.
In Springfield, the park district last year weighed whether to close its police department after it was criticized as “understaffed, under-resourced, poorly trained and leaderless” by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
The Springfield district, however, decided to keep its police after concluding it might cost too much to pay the city or sheriff’s police to provide security.
“Hopefully we will overcome problems we face here and … have a professional police department,” said Laimutis Nargelenas, a former Illinois State Police superintendent who was hired as chief in 2015 to revamp the department.
Oregon and Memorial park district police departments have since been disbanded.