Here's a lesson Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says he learned while restructuring personnel policies in his office: Making it harder to fire some employees makes it easier to fire others who deserve it.
As noted in the BackTalk blog on Monday and in an earlier Sun-Times editorial, the Cook County sheriff's office was the first local governmental unit to become what the courts call "substantially compliant" with the Shakman decree, a court edict designed to end patronage hiring and firing. The sheriff did it by modernizing his personnel policies.
In a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board earlier this month, Dart said putting hiring and firing on a professional basis has made it easier to rid the department of those who abuse personnel policies.
"I thought I was going to be able to sweep the decks a lot of some people who were chronic abusers of medical time - where it was a just outrageous coincidence, every Monday they're sick," Dart said. "After having had Saturday and Sunday off. So I starting sending people out to catch them at their houses [with] video cameras. ... Well, my general orders were in such disarray that I was losing the cases at arbitration, and then the person would be back, and they would be somewhat emboldened, too, that they beat me."
So that's how it worked then - if you didn't have a specific rule saying you can't take a sick day without being sick, then taking that unwarranted day off wasn't a firing violation. Now it is.
The video cameras also have come in handy at the county jail, Dart said.
"When I have someone who falls down a flight of stairs now, I have us with a video camera go and talk to the guy in the infirmary," Dart said. "He's acknowledging, 'I fell down a flight of stairs.' Why do I need to do that? Is that taking a guy off that his assignment? Yes. But when [the inmate] runs into a lawyer later on, and [the lawyer] says, 'You fell? Let's say you were pushed, and let's say a correctional officer hit you,' I now have [the earlier statement] on video.
"Does it take it longer? Yeah, but a lot of this stuff I have to do is driven by the fact, all right, we are going to get sued, so how to we prevent the suits or at least make them trickier?"
The cameras also are used during jail fights, Dart said.
"We have hand-held video cameras that we have people rushing in with. Because there is always allegations of everyone getting beat. ... Does that slow us down? Yeah, it does. Does it help us with lawsuits? Oh, God, yes, it does."
But the employees using the cameras have to be trained so that, for example, they don't look at the fight instead of capturing it with the camera.
If they are looking one way and the camera is pointing in another away from the fight, someone will claim the county covered up the evidence, Dart said.
Follow BackTalk on Twitter@stbacktalk