The life-size cardboard policeman cutout Palatine Town Justice Ron Dygert set up years ago to guard his courtroom might soon be replaced with an honest-to-goodness officer of the law.
Montgomery County’s new Legislature is looking to address certain safety concerns during its first months in power. District 8 Legislator Joe Isabel, the Public Safety Committee chairman, recently drafted a resolution requesting $10,000 in county funds be freed up to pay sheriff’s deputies to provide security for town courts within the county.
“We’ve been getting requests for security from judges out in the towns,” Isabel said. “It’s been going on for a while but the escape out in Palatine got things moving.”
Last month, Michael Shostek, a Canajoharie resident and two-time felon, came into Palatine Town Court to answer to a misdemeanor heroin charge. It was just Dygert, Shostek and a secretary in the room. There was no security aside from “Deputy I.M. Cheap,” a cardboard policeman cutout Dygert bought as a joke years ago.
The smiling officer’s likeness didn’t do much to stop Shostek when he ran from the courtroom to avoid a night in jail, so the judge took matters into his own hands — sprinting after the fleeing suspect.
“I don’t know what I would have done had I caught him,” Dygert said at the time.
He didn’t catch Shostek, but state police arrested him in a nearby Stewart’s Shop a few hours later. Isabel said the incident sparked countywide safety concerns.
According to state Office of Court Administration spokesman David Bookstaver, smaller rural town courts across the state often go without security personnel. Dygert said most town courts in Montgomery County have always been fine without security, but things are changing.
“We’re not dealing with the same clientele anymore,” he said. “When I started this 27 years ago, I saw a lot of people with alcohol problems. Now people have drug problems, and that’s different.”
Shostek, for example, allegedly was found with heroin on his person after his short-lived escape. Drugs, Dygert said, alter decision-making abilities.
“We’ve had four of these escapes now,” he said, adding that he worries about his own safety.
Over the past few years, Dygert asked the Palatine Town Board to finance court security but it declined. Now Isabel said the county is planning to leverage state dollars.
The public safety committee will have to pass Isabel’s resolution to the full Legislature later this month for final approval, but Isabel laid out the basics of his plan.
It used to be, he said, that deputies would be pulled from road patrol to secure courtrooms in emergencies.
“Then that just came out of the Sheriff’s budget,” Isabel said.
Under his new plan, a town justice worried about safety during a particular session could request a deputy attend.
The $10,000 of county money would act as a temporary payroll source for deputy man-hours.
“Then we’d be reimbursed by the Unified Court System,” Isabel said. “That’s state money.”
He said the Montgomery County Legislature is supportive of the plan, considering the reimbursement. However, it’s unclear at this point if the Unified Court System will come through with money.
According to Bookstaver, state dollars might not actually be available. Currently, most city courts in the state have state-employed court security officers, but a decade ago the court system contracted with local sheriff’s departments for security, he said. Some city courts still work under the old arrangement, but Bookstaver said town and village courts aren’t covered by the system.
“I think it’s an apples and oranges situation,” he said.
Should the state reimbursement money not come through, it’s unclear if the county will step up to fund security for town courtrooms.
Montgomery County Sheriff Mike Amato could not be reached for comment Monday.