By Craig Hastings
This is the eve of July 4 and I think this will be the first or possibly the second July 4 holiday that I haven’t been at work in my forty year career. It’s not because the town goes crazy on the 4 but, in case it did there would have been enough officers on duty to tend to the needs. Some of you do remember a deadly July 4 that did indeed take place right here in our little peaceful town and specifically in Ervin Park. Unfortunately for all of us this crime spree that ended here started counties away from our own. It had nothing to do with any of us in Tuscola. For whatever reason this guy chose our Main Street to continue his rampage. With that said, yes our police department has prepared for anything on the 4. One might think I would welcome the break from the norm and I might if it weren’t for the circumstances we are standing down this year. Maybe next year Tuscola will double their celebration efforts since we missed this year.
I received a call earlier today from a friend of mine telling me I had been mentioned on a local weekly podcast. These guys discuss the past, present, and future of everything Tuscola. I don’t have Facebook so I rely on others to alert me to anything relevant said about me or the police department through whatever social media avenue. Of course most of the time anything that is said about me or the department is negative in nature. And that’s okay too. I’ve been here long enough to ignore it. Not having Facebook is my first line of defense. Anyway, one of the gentlemen made a statement about me, actually a long time observation about me, that absolutely is spot on. I was surprised to hear him say this. Leading up to this they were having a discussion about policing in small rural communities and in cities as large as Champaign. Talking about me as the police chief, the conversation referenced how I’ve run this department and probably my way wouldn’t have worked in a larger city.
Of course it wouldn’t have. I’ve structured how we do things here based on the population, the character of the population, the businesses we have here, the school system here, and what crimes are prevalent here, etc. What this gentleman said was he believed that I would have adapted to any elements if they were different from what they have been. His long time observations of my career are absolutely correct. I remember clearly a time in the late 90’s when Tuscola was being used as a cocaine dumping zone by two different gangs from the Chicago area. Every single week large amounts of cocaine were being brought to a few Tuscola residents so they could then break it up and sell it throughout the county. TPD had to change and adapt to deal with this just like any large department would and we did.
Then Sheriff John Chambers and I teamed our departments personnel and resources together to intercept these people and stop their cocaine deliveries. John probably remembers as well as I do working this detail seven days a week and all hours of the day and night. We brought our own recovered dealer/user in from parts unknown to infiltrate the network. We set him up with living quarters, food, resources, anything he needed to help us sort this mess. Four of us were ready to respond whenever our guy called to meet him wherever he needed us to be. We layed in weeds all hours of the night, sat in abandoned buildings, unmarked cars, and on top of a hill a couple of outings. This is what it took and this is how they do it in larger departments. As hard as it was for us it was more difficult explaining being gone all the time to our families. When home we remained ready to leave at a moment’s notice during the 120 day investigation process.
All of the late nights and long hours paid off. By September we had enough evidence collected to have nineteen arrests warrants issued and executed with arrests made of all nineteen suspects. In the middle of all of this we arrested two gentlemen belonging to separate gang affiliations from Chicago. We recovered large amounts of crack cocaine and cash with those arrests. All of these years later to my memory this county has not seen a drug distribution network on the same caliber as that one in the late 90’s. Douglas County Sgt. Terry Lane and I made our drug detecting K9 dogs available to every officer in the county whenever they had a need. I was getting called to assist with K9 sniffs at least once a weekend by the Illinois State Police on I 57 at this same time. John and I couldn’t have been more proud of our team when this investigation came to a successful close.
For 120 days my role as Police Chief changed dramatically. My family told me I wasn’t even the same person during this investigation. I had to change and adapt and so did the members of our team. We had to try to become that element. We were trying to understand and learn how these people think and act. When it was over we all gradually melded back into our usual status quo of more simple rural county police officers and administrators. I didn’t care for who I had to be. I absolutely enjoy the lighter side of being a rural community police administrator. So, sincerely from me, thank you David for seeing and understanding that when there is a need, this police department and I are capable of doing what well populated, better equipped, and better compensated police departments are doing. And if we had to do the same from this day forward and forever we would and we could.
If only I was comfortable sharing with you what the officers employed by this department are being exposed to today. Things are changing rapidly and not for the better. I worry most nights about our officers on duty late at night. I didn’t have this concern even ten years ago. You said you think I choose carefully who I recommend to the Mayor and Council who I want working here? Yes I do. To a point I annoy my own second and third in command. The home grown Richard Lamb’s and Butch Hall’s mentioned will probably never be an option again but I try to find some of their characteristics in the candidates who apply. The citizens of Tuscola can rest assured that the crew they have employed right now is one of the best ever assembled here. Keeping them here has been a four year struggle. As for me, I think it was by someone else’s design that I do this work and do it in the town in which I was born.