Gildardo Sierra resigned from the Chicago Police Department in 2015 after his involvement in two fatal shootings led to a federal investigation and lawsuits that cost the city $7.5 million.
Six months later, Sierra was again a cop, this time for the Chicago Heights Park District’s police department, run at the time by his brother-in-law.
Other park districts have dropped their police departments — perhaps most infamously, another south suburb, Dixmoor, disbanded its park police in the late 1990s after its chief and another officer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with selling police badges.
Chicago Heights is one of just 19 Illinois park districts that still operate their own park police departments — with sworn officers assigned to patrol ball diamonds and green space. These districts spend a total of more than $5 million a year on their police departments, records show.
Even as other park districts have gotten out of law enforcement, the Chicago Heights district launched its own department just five years ago.
“People get shot and killed in these parks, they get robbed, cars get stolen and set on fire,” says Christian Daigre, Chicago Heights’ acting parks police chief. “This is not Mayberry.”
Still, records show the Chicago Heights park police didn’t arrest anyone last July or August — busy months for park users. Daigre says that shows his officers’ presence was an effective deterrent.
They didn’t write any tickets, either. The park board has yet to give its police department that authority.
Daigre became acting chief after Chief Jose Maldonado was placed on unpaid leave following his March 2016 arrest on charges including DUI, aggravated speeding and carrying a concealed firearm while under the influence of alcohol, according to the Illinois State Police. He remains suspended while the case is pending.
Maldonado had hired Sierra, whose troubles had been the subject of widespread news coverage.
Ruling in the 2011 death of Flint Farmer — an unarmed man Sierra shot three times in the back — Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority found the shooting unjustified, though Sierra wasn’t charged with any crime.
Sierra and his partner also were involved in a shooting earlier in 2011 that claimed the life of Darius Pinex and left another man wounded. IPRA found Sierra fired multiple shots but didn’t strike either man.
City Hall settled lawsuits filed in those shootings for a total of about $7.5 million, court records show.
“How would we know if there was any shootings in the past?” Frank Perez, the Chicago Heights park district’s executive director says when asked why Sierra was hired.
Still, Sierra didn’t last long. The park district fired him last May, after suspending Maldonado. According to Perez, Sierra was still a probationary employee and “didn’t fit in with the department.”
Messages left for Sierra and Maldonado weren’t returned.
In the past five years, four park districts statewide have dumped their police departments. One was the Memorial Park District, which included Bellwood and parts of neighboring west suburbs. At one point, Memorial had dozens of officers for a smattering of recreational facilities.
Memorial recently settled a lawsuit for up to $1.7 million that claimed the park cops went on ticket-writing blitzes, often away from park property. About half of that was to refund people ticketed going back as far as 1984, with most of the rest for attorney’s fees.
“Guys love to have a badge and a wallet to flash so they can drive like idiots,” says Mari Herrell, executive director of the Memorial Park District. “They cannot get on a real police department.”
The remaining park police departments range from Rockford’s, with a budget of over $1 million, 5,000 acres to patrol and a dozen full-time cops, to the Hawthorne district in Cicero, with a $32,000 budget and three part-timers to watch over 22 acres of parks and two banquet halls.
In Lake County, officers working for the Round Lake Area Park District haven’t made a single arrest or written a ticket in two years, records show — but the department has an arsenal that includes three military-surplus M-16 semi-automatic rifles.
Last July and August, park police officers in Calumet City, Cicero and Morton Grove didn’t make any arrests or write even one ticket, records show.
“Just because they’re not issuing tickets doesn’t mean they’re not out in the parks enforcing the rules,” says Jeffrey Wait, executive director of the Morton Grove Park District.
The Crystal Lake park district police department has gotten three M-16s under a federal program that donates surplus military gear to police. Parks police Chief Dan Dziewior, previously a Crystal Lake cop for 28 years, calls them “standard things in every police department nowadays. It’s very pinpoint, and you hit exactly what you’re aiming at.”
Casey Toner is a Better Government Association investigator.