Both candidates running for Cole County prosecuting attorney plan to have open communications with law enforcement and judges if elected to the office.
"At the end of the day, the prosecutor's office and law enforcement agencies have to work together," Republican candidate Locke Thompson said. "It's a team effort to keep the community safe. As I said when I talked with the police officers' association, if I can't close the deal, then the work you do doesn't matter."
Democratic candidate Deirdre "DK" Hirner said the relationship between the prosecutor's office and law enforcement is key to a successful law enforcement system.
"I believe lawyers/prosecutors need to develop an understanding of what law officers face on the streets," Hirner said. "If I'm elected, I'd like to see lawyers in our office be part of the briefings that officers have before they go out for their shifts. I think that would be a good way to have a better handle on what crimes are most occurring."
Thompson said the prosecutor's working relationship with law enforcement should include briefing officers on a regular basis about changes to laws and working on what needs to be included in probable cause statements on cases that go to judges when they are making decisions on matters such as setting bonds.
"Prosecutors and law officers are constantly working together," Thompson said. " There's also courtroom training we'd do with the officers, making sure they are able to give information."
Hirner said it's important for the prosecutor to respect law enforcement's ability to exercise discretion with potential criminal conduct.
"It's just like prosecutors exercise discretion once the arrest had been made," Hirner said. "When law officers are placed in potentially volatile situations, such as domestic violence, it's important for prosecutors to know that police are there to prevent the situation from escalating from bad to worse. They are there, on the scene, reacting to the situation."
Thompson said having an officer involved in every step of a case, particularly in violent crimes, can lead to quicker resolutions to cases.
"In an illegal drug case I prosecuted, I worked with the officer involved and he came up with the suggestion to get access to the suspect's Facebook page and get into the messages on there," he said. "Sure enough, there were messages about distributions, and that helped us get a plea deal where the suspect was sentenced to 17 years in prison. If we hadn't had that line of communication, we would have been headed to a jury trial that would have wasted time and resources."
Hirner said it's important to let officers know the prosecutor supports them in their efforts.
"They inform us about what they're seeing on their beats and tell what they're hearing," Hirner said. "With that shared information, we can do our jobs better. I don't want to undermine their efforts; I want to work with them."
Both candidates said they also would keep open lines of communications with judges at the Cole County Courthouse.
Thompson and Hirner, in a News Tribune-hosted candidate forum Oct. 10, made reference to criminal cases not being referred to Cole County Judge Jon Beetem by current Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson's office.
After indictments are handed down by the Cole County Grand Jury, the cases are sent to the circuit courts for possible trial. The cases are sent to the three circuit judges for assignment — Beetem, Pat Joyce and Dan Green.
Cole County court officials' records indicated the first reports of change of judge requests filed by the Cole County Prosecutor's Office, with consistency in cases involving Beetem, date back to March 2014. This usually means those cases go to either Joyce or Green or to Senior Judge Richard Callahan, who was brought in at the beginning of the year to handle some of the court's increased caseload, Joyce said.
Under state law, each side in a case has a right to ask for a change of judge, without giving a reason.
When asked this week why the prosecutor's office had made those motions, Richardson and Beetem declined to comment.
Unlike the current office, Thompson said the prosecutor's office has to overcome any differences and work with the judges.
"You're working with judges every day, and you want to make sure your office has a credible reputation," Thompson said. "You and your assistants need to be respectful; and while you may not always agree with the judge, at the end of day, it's their call. If you disagree, do it professionally. I believe judges have been elected by the citizens of the county, and I would be taking cases to all judges and use all resources available. By doing that, I believe we would not see the backlog we're currently seeing."
Judges hold what are known as "law days," which are scheduled to go through the criminal cases assigned to their court — whether they need to be continued for another hearing, whether a plea is ready to be heard or whether trial dates need to be scheduled. Generally, the cases heard during these days number slightly over 100, but in the last few months, there have been law days when both Joyce and Green have had more than 200 cases on their dockets.
"I think it would be important to establish a relationship with the judges as soon as possible, if I were elected," Hirner said. "They need to be able to see that they can work with me, and I want to work with them to make sure the citizens have the court system they expect."
The winner in the Nov. 6 general election will take office in January. Thompson defeated Richardson in the August Republican primary, in which Hirner was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.