DuPage voters have a choice in the sheriff’s race between a veteran with the sheriff’s office and a candidate who says he can bring an independent, outside perspective.
Republican James Mendrick is facing Democrat Gregory Whalen in the Nov. 6 election to fill the seat held by retiring Sheriff John Zaruba, who has held the post since 1997.
Mendrick of Woodridge started as a patrol officer in 1996 and worked his way up the ranks to serve as a commander.
The married father of two said he understands the department because he’s done it all: deputy, field training officer, patrol sergeant, detective sergeant, lieutenant, patrol commander, gang commander, canine commander, major, accreditation manager, administrative bureau chief and budget director. He’s also managed the courthouse, crime laboratory, dispatch center, civil division and information technology.
In the various roles, Mendrick said he’s built relationships with municipal departments as well as within county government, which is necessary in the role of sheriff.
Whalen of Clarendon Hills brings a background not only as a police officer, but also as a firefighter and paramedic with the Glencoe Department of Public Safety. In Glencoe, public safety workers are cross-trained as certified police officers, firefighters and medical first responders.
Along similar lines, the married father of five said he would like to create a countywide rescue task force to train police, fire and emergency medical professions to better work together at the scene of a mass violence or active shooter incident. Whalen said improved cooperation could save lives by getting victims treated faster.
Both candidates list dealing with the opioid crisis and mental health among their top priorities.
Whalen is calling for more public education programs for children and adults alike. “It’s important to recognize the early signs and symptoms,” he said.
Immediate in-person referrals to social service agencies for those in the grips of opioid addictions also are part of Whalen’s plan.
De-escalating potentially volatile incidents involving those suffering from a mental health crisis is important, Whalen said, which is why he proposes ramping up crisis intervention team training that’s under way at the sheriff’s department.
“Obviously there’s a stigma around mental health,” he said, adding the CIT training and continuing education will help with that.
Among the ideas Mendrick wants to institute is diverting inmates with mental health issues out of the county jail where they can better receive treatment.
He also said mental health issues and opioid problems often go hand in hand.
For fighting the opioid epidemic, Mendrick suggests a multi-pronged approach, increasing the number of drug detection dogs, creating an unused medication program, and promoting education and technology in addition to “hard, high enforcement.”
“This is a battle that isn’t going to end,” and one solution is not going to solve the problem, he said.
He said expanding the canine unit will allow the sheriff’s office and municipal police departments 24-hour access to drug-sniffing dogs. Mendrick said the effort removes drugs from the streets and funds itself when police seize “bad guy” money.
Mendrick said besides learning the signs and symptoms of opioid use, education programs can teach parents about the latest technology to help them detect possible issues. He cited a cell phone app that mirrors the key strokes on a child’s phone so parents know who and what their kids are texting.
He’s also promoting a Gold Star Achievement Award for students in grades 6-12. With a parent’s consent, children who accept drug testing and remain clean are rewarded with incentives, such as assistance with college entry, employment opportunities and various gifts from local businesses.
Mendrick said upgrading the sheriff’s office’s technology will be critical going forward.
Instead of servers that require constant maintenance and upgrades, Mendrick is proposing converting to a cloud-based system that can reduce costs and offer improved policing applications.
He said such a system would allow dispatchers in the event of an incident at a school the ability to turn on cameras inside the school and provide a school resource officer a live stream of what’s happening on the officer’s cell phone.
He added that improved technology also would allow the sheriff’s office to push notifications to cell phones letting residents know about incidents in their neighborhoods.
If elected, Whalen said he will push for the county to purchase body cameras.
With costs dropping as technology changes, he said leasing the equipment at this point makes the most sense.
Because body cameras provide evidence in use-of-force lawsuits, he said the savings the county would get in settlement costs is well worth the investment.
“Most importantly it promotes transparency within our community,” he said. “In the end, we need to be accountable.”
Whalen also said he wants to mend the mistaken perception that law enforcement is merely an authority figure rather than a partner.
Part of the job of sheriff, he said, is developing relationships with communities and being accountable to the people the sheriff’s office serves.