Crystal Lake Park District police have been around for 100 years. Will 2024 be their last?

Park board will cover what the budget will look like without park police on Jan. 4

A Crystal Lake Park District police officer walks into the Crystal Lake Park District office on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Crystal Lake. The park board is considering disbanding its police department that was established in 1924 and is the only park district police force in McHenry County.

The Crystal Lake park board is continuing the discussion of possibly dissolving the park district police department or significantly cutting its budget.

Reasons to disband the department include saving money and resources, since some park police responsibilities are duplications of municipal police duties, according to park documents.

No action has been taken, but the park board hopes to make a decision by February, Crystal Lake Park District Executive Director Jason Herbster said.

For fiscal 2024, the Crystal Lake Park District budgeted to spend $435,495 on its police department, according to park district documents. Last fiscal year, the budget was $287,064.

Starting in 2024, the park police will need to be equipped with body cameras due to the Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act. Part of this year’s budget increase is because of the $50,000 added to equipment expenses, Herbster said.

The board looked over different budget scenarios, including a 50% reduction in park police budget and matching previous annual budgets that weren’t as high as this year’s.

One scenario looked at cutting the cost of part-time officer hours from $120,518.23 per year to $23,000 per year, which would be about two eight-hour shifts per week. Other ways the possible scenario would cut costs is having officers pay for their own uniforms and training.

Another scenario with an $153,700 annual budget would cut officer hours and eliminate the full-time officer position but still have a reduced uniform and training budget.

The board is expected to discuss the topic further at its Jan. 4 committee of the whole meeting and possibly go over what the budget would look like if the park police department was completely dissolved.

“I think we need to not just focus on not only the dollars and cents, but the overall impact to the city of Crystal Lake, their police department and how would the public perceive the safety of our parks,” Commissioner Sarah Michehl said at a parks board meeting last week.

Started in 1924, the Crystal Lake Park District Police Department currently employs 11 people, Herbster said. There is one full-time chief and one full-time officer and the rest are part-time officers.

The department serves 58,000 people in Crystal Lake, Lakewood and a portion of Lake in the Hills with an acreage of 1,400 and is the only park police department in McHenry County, according to park district documents. The McHenry County Conservation District also has a police department.

The park board could look at what the McHenry County Conservation District police do and don’t do to budget out what Crystal Lake could use the parks police for, Commissioner Cathy Cagle said.

“I think it is our responsibility as a taxing body to say, ‘Is this necessary?’” Cagle said. “Because it has been going on for 100 years, maybe now is the perfect time to ask that.”

Board members debated the significance of the Crystal Lake Park District Police Department, some saying park staff could carry out the duties instead while others believe the park police have specialized knowledge.

Some residents attended Thursday’s meeting to speak in favor of and opposition to keeping the park police department.

Money spent on park police could be used to upgrade aging parks like Knack Park, Crystal Lake resident Bob Miller said.

“The Crystal Lake Park Police are a duplicative municipal service,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying for police with our city taxes and then we are having to pay for police again with our park district taxes.”

Crystal Lake resident Robert Kaempfe suggested putting the matter up for a vote for the public to decide.

Kaempfe, who works part-time for the McHenry County Conservation District and the Crystal Lake Park District at the Nature Center, argued that the park police provide services Crystal Lake Police Department cannot provide since they are busy with other conventional police manners.

“They can’t just drop that and go looking for a lost child in the parks,” he said. “Ask them if they are going to patrol the parks.”

Have a Question about this article?