WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Ill. - The Republican primary race between Sheriff Gary Caruana and challenger Kurt Ditzler pits two candidates with starkly different backgrounds against one another.
Caruana, the sheriff since 2014, joined the county after 26 years as head of corporate security for United Parcel Service (UPS) in Illinois while Ditzler brings 31 years of law enforcement experience to the table, previously serving with the Rockford Police Department and for the sheriff's office from 1988 to 2017. He retired last year as chief deputy.
Caruana and Ditzler have gone back and forth over how they view the future of the sheriff's office.
Caruana is leaning on his experience and work to diversify the sheriff's office's reach in the county. Ditzler believes his experience as chief deputy and refocused, supportive approach should appeal to primary voters.
It's politician versus police officer, according to Ditzler, while Caruana says his business experience and management past give him the edge over Ditzler.
Both spoke of tight future budgets, the perception of crime in Winnebago County and how the department should handle future law enforcement efforts.
Caruana said he is bringing sweeping changes to the sheriff's office.
"I'm in the process of changing an antiquated-type culture in some areas that's very deep-rooted. We're changing that slowly," Caruana said. "It takes time. I am happy with what we've been doing."
Ditzler said he wanted to re-examine the sheriff's office command staff model and how the sheriff's office interacts with all county law enforcement agencies.
"We need to take a hard look at department policies," Ditzler said. "I think it follows best practice to do so."
• Sheriff's Office Budget:
On. Sept. 30, the Winnebago County Board approved making $4.3 million in cuts to the sheriff's office. To date, Caruana has cut $2.5 million, and says he can't cut more or risk putting the public in danger. He's laid off 64 reserve deputies tasked with courthouse security; 23 911 dispatchers and 10 county jail corrections officers. The officers were re-hired in February after the board approved $325,000 to fund the positions through October.
Currently there are approximately 106 sworn sheriff's office personnel and approximately 365 total staff, with nearly 150 working at the Winnebago County Jail and 21 making up department command staff.
"It would be irresponsible of me to cut further," Caruana said. "It would take out vital services. The jail lockdowns shows you proof of that."
Caruana is facing multiple lawsuits from jail inmates alleging excessive lockdown conditions. Caruana said the reduced staffing was the main factor for the lawsuits, adding that he had met with county board chairman Frank Haney to explore the possibility of contracting an outside firm to examine sheriff's office spending.
Ditzler said the sheriff should consider cutting command staff, saying that cuts to rank-and-file personnel doubly hurts the department.
"So far all we've seen in the cuts have been deputies, corrections officers and dispatchers," Ditzler said. "Those are people that are doing the work and they are entry level. They're the people out in the field doing the job that's required to get done."
He said since they are getting lower pay than the command staff, the department would have to cut more of the entry level staff than the command staff in order to make a dent in the budget.
• Crime in Winnebago County
According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data provided by the sheriff's office, the crime rate in the county decreased 21 percent in 2017 from 2016 following a 44 percent spike in 2016 from 2015. In 2017, 3,527 crimes were reported coupled with 1,184 arrests. In 2016, 3,891 crimes were reported with 1,076 arrests made, according to UCR data.
Increased arrests shows the county's focused enforcement efforts are working, Caruana said.
"Our efforts are paying off, I am just a little concerned with these budget cuts," Caruana said. "We've made some adjustments and I am very proud of this patrol division."
The sheriff's office recently shuttered its tactical team unit due to the cuts but started a Safe Streets Task Force through FBI funding to target gang activity with Rockford police and other departments. A new narcotics team from the department, with the assistance of the DEA, coupled with the work of the county's five member K-9 unit was behind the county's increased number of reported drug crimes.
Ditzler said the high costs of the K-9 unit and focused task forces took away from the sheriff department's main role of providing support to outlying county agencies, while also assisting the Rockford Police Department.
"We should work with the city as we should with the other agencies across Winnebago County," Ditzler said. "We have to remember that in tight budget times, we have a responsibility to run the Winnebago County Jail, provide security for courthouses and police unincorporated areas of the county. We have to do those primary functions first because we do specialized functions before we are tying up our resources."
The winner of the March 20 primary will face Democrat and retired deputy chief Robert Springer Jr. in the November general election. Springer previously sought the top law enforcement post in the county.