URBANA — The University of Illinois Police Department's two newest officers both bring military experience with them as they begin their daily patrols on campus.
Before joining the UI police force, Villa Grove native Chris Elston spent six years in the Navy, much of it in Norfolk, Va., where he sometimes worked with the real NCIS — Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
"I drove a patrol car and even drove patrol boats because I was stationed where the ships came into shore," said Elston, 27. "It was our job to protect the ships from people who might want to do damage, especially after the USS Cole incident."
The USS Cole was a Naval guided-missile destroyer that was bombed by terrorists in the Yemen port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.
Champaign resident Michael Unander, 32, joins the UI police after 12 years in the Air Force. Unander was a member of a tactical air patrol team that provided close air support for infantry units in Afghanistan.
"When infantry units on the front lines were overwhelmed by enemy forces, we were called in for an air strike," Unander said. "Any time there was an aircraft that dropped bombs or ammunition, we were the ones who marked the targets."
Both Elston and Unander began their duties this month after being part of the first class to graduate from the University of Illinois Police Training Institute after the three-month program there was reinstituted this fall.
"We learned a lot," Elston said. "It is definitely one of the top academies to go to. We were fortunate that the academy reopened in time for us to go there."
Elston said he has wanted to be a police officer since he was a little boy.
"My mom has worked as a secretary for the Villa Grove police department since I was a child, so I was always stopping by the police department after school, hanging out with the police officers. I think those officers inspired me and sparked my interest in law enforcement."
After studying criminal justice at Parkland College and serving with the Navy, Elston joined the Douglas County sheriff's office, where he worked as a correctional officer for about a year.
"I talked a lot with the sheriff's deputies and officers from the other police departments in the county who brought people who were arrested to the jail," he said.
"I think that, when you work at a jail, you learn how to deal with a lot of people in the criminal justice system and understand them more."
More recently Elston worked as a Navy recruiter in Champaign until his opportunity to join the UI police force came along.
Unlike Elston, Unander said he had very little contact with the law enforcement community growing up. Unander said he found criminal profiling and criminal investigations as portrayed on television fascinating, so he decided to major in criminal justice at Illinois State University.
"Taking classes at ISU added to my passion for the subject," he said.
When Unander began an internship working for the U.S. marshal's service in Urbana, he knew for sure that a career in law enforcement was for him.
"I did everything from transporting prisoners to doing some surveillance work, issuing federal court summons and doing some probation department searches," he said.
After spending so much time working with the feds, Unander said, he was torn between going into law enforcement at the local level or federal level until UI police Sgt. John Brown inspired him to pursue a job with the UI police.
"Because I'm local from the area, there were people that I know at each of the local departments: Champaign, Urbana, the UI and the sheriff's office," he said. "But after talking to Sgt. Brown, I decided that, if I were to handpick the department I would work for, it would be the UI. It seems like everyone I've ever met who worked for the UI police department was really happy there."
The UI department has been one of the more aggressive in the area when it comes to hiring new officers.
The department hired eight officers in 2011 and another four in 2012, including Elston and Unander.
"We have been authorized for 65 sworn officers," said UI police Capt. Roy Acree. "We have been able to grow because of the need for additional officers. Compared to other universities our size, we were understaffed."
The UI department also received a $660,000 grant from the Department of Justice to pay for crime prevention and crime analysis officers.
Urbana police Lt. Bob Fitzgerald said the vast majority of new hires in his department have been to replace officers who retire.
"The last several hirings have been due to retirement," Fitzgerald said. "We have been allocated 55 officers, and the city council allows us to fill those positions."
Other police departments have felt budget crunches due to a slow economy.
"When the economy turned bad, we began to lose positions in all three divisions: law enforcement, corrections and court services," said Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh. "Our new hires in law enforcement have almost always been due to retirements."
Douglas County Chief Deputy Peter Buckley said smaller police agencies sometimes find themselves hiring new officers after people leave to get jobs elsewhere.
"Small counties like ours don't have the budgets that large municipalities have," Buckley said.
But Fitzgerald and Walsh agree that having the Police Training Institute nearby has been beneficial in providing a local training ground for new police officers.
"It is a big help for the police department to have PTI here in town," Fitzgerald said.
"Having PTI here in the county reduces our costs so we don't have to send people to Cook County or Edwardsville," Walsh said.
Police officers hired over last two years
|Police department||2011 hires||2012 hires|
|University of Illinois||8||4|
Numbers provided by individual police departments, cities or villages.