PEORIA — This midterm election cycle includes one Peoria County race in particular with a level of competition unseen in more than a decade, a result due more to the lengthy tenure of the previous office holder than any partisan divide.
Both candidates for Peoria County sheriff brandish resumes with deep law enforcement experience, even if their credentials differ in breadth and scope.
Bartonville police Chief Brian Fengel's 21 years as top cop in the Peoria County village includes outside positions as the current elected president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and appointments to a slew of policy development groups, such as the Illinois Opioid Crisis Response Advisory Council and United States Medal of Valor Selection Board.
Under Democrat Fengel's leadership, the Bartonville police department became the first in the county to equip officers with body cameras and train them how to use naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversal drug.
Republican Brian Asbell already has experience in the position he seeks: He was appointed interim sheriff more than a year ago when Mike McCoy stepped down to become Washington police chief. Asbell also served as an undersheriff — jail superintendent — for the previous seven years of the McCoy administration.
During his tenure as superintendent, Asbell became one of only three certified jail managers in the state who have achieved that national accreditation, and he shepherded the jail through a successful accreditation process with the National Commission of Correctional Healthcare, making vast changes to the handling of mental health issues.
"The largest responsibility we have is the jail," Asbell said. "I've made a lot of programs and services (at the jail) to address ... the root issues of crime — recidivism is the key word."
Among those changes are weekly visits by a "navigator" to help eligible inmates enroll in Medicaid, with the idea that treatment initiated during incarceration can be continued after release and reduce the odds someone will reoffend. Asbell wants to expand on that concept if elected, creating a case-management system to coordinate services for inmates once they are free.
Fengel similarly sees a need for enhanced mental health treatment options with law enforcement assistance, particularly in regard to a surge in opioid addiction. The Bartonville department recently became the first in the county to implement a Safe Passages program, where any village resident can come ask for help and be connected with addiction treatment services.
"It's a program I believe in and want to see at the Peoria County Sheriff's Office," Fengel said. "We've got to get people the help they need and keep them out of jail, because we've seen that doesn't work, and it costs a lot of money."
One fundamental aspect of the current operations at the office that Fengel thinks needs to change can be summed up in one word: communication. As sheriff, Fengel said he would initiate more conversations with deputies and jailers, and seek ways to open new relationships with the public and partner police agencies.
"The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county, and it's time we act like it and get everyone working together," Fengel said. "You have to get people working together as a team, because that's not working now."
Asbell, meanwhile, said his lengthy experience at the department makes him the best choice to lead it into the future, with an emphasis on fostering trust with the community.
"The main thing is the institutional knowledge of the business," Asbell said. "I'm not the traditional model of policing, I'm progressive, and police legitimacy is a top priority."
Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.