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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the New Law in Town

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart made national news last fall when he refused to carry out evictions connected to mortgage foreclosures. What kind of lawman is this?

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No spot was tougher, no seat hotter, than the day last July when the Department of Justice issued a scathing report about conditions at the jail. The report said, among other things, that the jail was unsanitary and had failed to provide adequate medical care and suicide prevention.

Dart believes the report exaggerated isolated incidents and failed to note his accomplishments. “Some of the criticism was accurate, and then there was a majority of it that was completely out of context,” he says. Charles A. Fasano, the director of the Prison and Jails Program at the John Howard Association of Illinois, agrees that Dart got somewhat of a raw deal. “By and large, he has really taken a fresh look at stuff,” says Fasano. “The jail, for example, is less crowded now than it has been at any time in the last 20 years, and Cook County’s suicide rate is among the lowest in the country.”

While it’s true that the jail’s medical care needs vast improvement, Fasano says, those services are not under Dart’s purview. “When the [federal] report came out, and they had all that scathing stuff about the medical end, it sounds like it’s the sheriff’s problem. Well, it isn’t.”

The eviction issue has brought Dart far better publicity. “Today’s American Hero,” declared one blog. “The sheriff who wouldn’t evict” was how an NBC 5 Chicago reporter referred to him. These days, Dart can even joke about the initial threats of lawsuits and contempt charges from the mortgage associations. 

“There’s a new sheriff in town, all right,” Dart told the City Club of Chicago in October. “People tend to think of the sheriff’s office [as] Andy Taylor, Barney . . . the traditional cowboy hat, a six-shooter. . . . You just didn’t realize you got yourself one who apparently isn’t big into following the law. It’s a fascinating concept.” The crowd laughed. “I don’t think I’m going to arrest myself,” though, he added. More laughter. “If I do, . . . I’ll put myself on home confinement.” Applause. “At the Four Seasons.” 

* * *

The three-year-old girl with pink and white plastic barrettes gazes up at the man in the chinos and gray pullover as if waiting for an answer. The couple in this instance aren’t one of Dart’s “no-brainer” cases—renters who have paid in good faith only to be told they have to get out. The case is more complicated. The landlord, for example, had insisted that he had not locked the couple out, but screw holes in the door suggested that he had mounted and removed a deadbolt. And something in Dart’s gut tells him the woman with the plastic heart-shaped earrings is telling the truth when she says she filed a motion with a judge to stay the eviction.

And so Dart, looking and sounding more like a social worker than the county lawman, grants a reprieve. “We need to know all the facts,” he tells one of his deputies out of earshot of the couple. “Let’s give it another day.”

“We’re going to give you a couple of days here,” he says, turning to the woman. “So if you have some paperwork, please get it. It may be the case that the landlord is still within his rights to have you put out, but at least you’ll have a chance.”

He casts a glance at the girl. “But please do this, OK? You two will be all right; you can probably find a place. But for her sake. We don’t want to put her out in the cold.”

The couple nod. The little girl, in her red coat and white cap with bears, giggles. And the unlikely sheriff, his black-uniformed deputies in tow, heads down the back stairs, out to his Tahoe, and to the next home, where he also grants a reprieve. There will be more evictions one day, just not this day. Instead, Dart drives back to his office at 31st and California, the one that stands in the shadow of his jail. He settles behind his desk and he fires up some tunes, The Clash, or the Rolling Stones, or Warren Zevon—and gets down to business.

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