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‘An awesome responsibility’

An interview with the new Grundy County sheriff

Deputy Paul Clampitt (left) meets with new Grundy County Sheriff Ken Briley.
Deputy Paul Clampitt (left) meets with new Grundy County Sheriff Ken Briley.

On Nov. 6, Minooka police officer Ken Briley was elected Grundy County sheriff in his second attempt at the post. He’d lost to Sheriff Kevin Callahan in 2014. He was sworn into office Friday, Nov. 30, and took over a midnight as the county’s top cop.

Morris Herald-News sat down with Briley during his first week to talk about his journey to the job and his plans for the office. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Morris Herald-News: You didn’t come up through the ranks of the sheriff’s office and had an almost nonlinear career path. You started in corrections and then became a police officer. How did you get from where you started to here?

Ken Briley: My childhood dream was to be a cop, probably like a lot of boys. That’s where I wanted to go. My dad was in the military, served in the Army for 20 years, so I was a military brat. ... I had enough military life through my dad, so I wanted to go into the law enforcement side of it.

When I graduated high school at 18, I wasn’t old enough to be a cop because you needed to be 21. ... One of the things I had heard, myth or otherwise, was that people who become police officers have this John Wayne syndrome. Once you give them a badge or a gun, they want to go out save the world or arrest everybody. I wanted to see what it was like to be locked up before I had the authority to go out and take someone’s liberty away from them.

To me that’s huge. That’s an awesome responsibility. A police officer has the right to take someone’s liberty away and incarcerate them. That’s an awesome responsibility, in my opinion. So I didn’t want to have that John Wayne syndrome without seeing what it was like on the other side of the bars. I wanted to see how, when you took someone’s liberty away, how that impacted them.

Because I couldn’t become a cop, I thought going into the jail system was a good way to see what I wanted to see. ... For the next 24 years, I worked for the Department of Corrections, holding every rank from correctional officer up to my last five years I ended up being the warden at Stateville.

After a change in leadership at the state level, Briley said he spent two years watching changes at other state prisons and, when he learned he was being fired, he wasn’t surprised.

“I thought, ‘What and I going to go now?’ I’m 42 years old, I still had that passion and drive to be a cop. ... Maybe I can become a cop somewhere. ... I ultimately filled out an application in Minooka; I happened to know the police chief there.

MHN: What made you want to make the jump from Minooka Police to sheriff?

Briley: I felt that I had the skill level to do something higher with
my administrative experience, my budgetary experience, I supervised 1,500 employees. People from the sheriff’s office and dispatch center came to me and said, ‘What do you think about running for sheriff? We’ve got it bad here.” ... I thought maybe I can help, maybe I can make a difference.

MHN: The issue that grabs the most headlines is the opioid crisis. ... What are your plans or ideas to help combat that, from a law enforcement standpoint, in Grundy County?

Briley: I think it’s pretty evident that we can’t arrest our way out of that problem. So it has to be a multifaceted approach. (Chief Deputy) John Nicholson came from, his wheelhouse in law enforcement, he served on a drug task force in southern Illinois for six years. ... He really has the experience of dealing with and combating drugs from a task force standpoint, so he’s going to lead that piece of it.

One of the things I want to do is meet with every police chief and start rebuilding the relationship. There hasn’t been a very good relationship between Morris, Coal City, Minooka and the sheriff’s office, at least from my eyes. We can’t do this by ourselves, we have to do this collectively.

I think there’s also an educational piece. ... Because my experience in dealing with family members of people using heroin, they don’t know what to do. ... They end up trying to deal with it themselves with no guidance, no support services and they ultimately end up failing...

There’s a program called the Safe Passage Program that allows drug users to come to the police department, take a drug test, and we get them into a drug treatment center. We have to look at this as “These people need help.” Did they do this themselves? Did they get themselves hooked on this? Probably, but we just can’t wash our hands of them. We can’t just lock them up. We can’t just bury them ... But a lot of times someone has to hit rock bottom before they’re able to get back up.

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