Illinois Police Training Centers Grapple With Major Funding Shortfall

Mar 3, 2020

Law enforcement agencies across Illinois are struggling to pay for state-mandated officer training.

Sixteen mobile training units, or MTUs, across the state provide officers required training on topics like law updates, proper use of force, mental health awareness, sexual abuse investigation training, and officer wellness. Traffic ticket fines fund 100 percent of the training.

An overhaul of the law lets judges waive some fines and fees based on income. The change that went into effect last July is supposed to be a reform. But it also led to a drastic shortfall in training funds available for MTUs and police academies.

Brian Fengel heads the Central Illinois Police Training Center at the Illinois Central College Peoria campus.

"Basically, the MTU's were told, hey, no more classes, look at your staff. If you need to lay off people, if you need to cut classes, do so," Fengel said. "You're in emergency mode right now." 

The VirTra VR system includes officer training scenarios for school shootings and other potential emergency situations requiring quick thinking.
Credit Tim Shelley/ WCBU

The Central Illinois Police Training Center includes the only virtual reality police training set-up outside the Chicago area. Trainers test officer responses to active shooter situations and other scenarios.

The center currently trains officers in Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford counties - but is set to absorb Marshall, Putnam, Stark, Bureau, and LaSalle soon. 

Fengel said he's managed to avoid layoffs by offering only classes he can provide for free. But if no additional funds come through, he said he'll have to shut down in June.

Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said that would put departments like his in a precarious position.

"There's an increased risk if we don't have these training requirements done by all of our officers. If you're involved in a situation and there's potential litigation, that's the first thing they're going to look at - failure to train," Asbell said. 

The state requires training at the Illinois police academy before departments can hire new officers. Asbell said the academy recently charged his office $12,000 for two deputies to attend - the first time that's ever happened. Those dollars were not budgeted.

The Peoria Police Department recently shelled out $120,000 to send 20 people to the academy. The department is about two dozen officers below full strength. 

Tim Gleason is Bloomington's City Manager, and the Chair of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

"The municipality will pay the way for the recruit, their officer, with the intention that they'll be reimbursed once the funding at the state level corrects itself," Gleason said. 

In many cases, that's already happening. Peoria County Sheriff Brian Asbell said the MTU recently had to cancel a class which nine people needed to obtain their field officer training certification.

"Bringing new hires in, you have to have this. What you have to do is, then call the instructor. He's from out of state. Then we brought the instructor here to this agency and we paid for this class ourself," he said.  

Asbell said the sheriff's office blunted the budget hit by splitting the cost with other police agencies whose officers also needed the training. But the costs still stretch budgets already strained by cuts and overtime expenses. 

"It's going to be a constant juggling act," said Asbell. "We're going to have to look at the dollars we have to see where the risk is, and try to mitigate the risk by which training we'll bring in."  

Pending legislation would shift $5 million from the state's general revenue fund into the Traffic and Criminal Conviction Surcharge Fund. That's the special pool of funds used to pay for police training. Ticket revenues have plummeted by about $5 million since the changes to state law. 

State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) and state Sen. Chuck Weaver (R-Peoria) are co-sponsors of that bill. But Fengel warned that's only an emergency measure.

"Down the road, what they're going to have to look at is what is the funding stream or mechanism going to be in place to keep these up and running," Fengel said. 

One option is using sales tax revenue from legalized recreational marijuana. Asbell said that's the easiest path. A portion of those funds already go to law enforcement, though not specifically for police training.

The Illinois Department of Revenue reported more than $10 million worth of sales tax revenue in the first month of recreational cannabis legalization alone.

Asbell also said he's in favor of removing some training mandates for much of downstate Illinois that are geared towards more urban areas.

"There's several options...considerations that are in play. It definitely is a high priority now that it's reached this point," said Gleason. 

Fengel said because MTUs cater their offerings to the needs of the local law enforcement agencies they serve, they offer the best option for state-mandated training.