Most Chicago police officers, especially old-timers, have heard of Connie Fletcher’s 1990 book What Cops Know. The best-selling collection of war stories and earned wisdom from members of the Chicago Police Department grew out of a 1987 article of the same name that Fletcher wrote for this magazine. At the time, the crack epidemic was ramping up and the city would soon be flirting with 1,000 homicides a year. The cops’ raw, unvarnished anecdotes portrayed neighborhoods in free fall, crawling with dope dealers, junkies, and gang soldiers.

Thirty years on, Chicago is again in the grip of a violent crime wave, but the dynamics are different, even more chaotic. The public debate has changed, too, with the actions of cops called into question in ways that, in many officers’ eyes, have made the job harder.

Over the past six years covering crime for the Chicago Tribune, I’ve interviewed scores of police officers and gotten to know more than a few. Most came to the job because they wanted to help people. Many learned about policing at a young age from older relatives on the force. The more I talked to these cops, the more the time felt right to reprise Fletcher’s article—to hear in officers’ own words the things they usually say only to each other, and to get their take on subjects usually left to reporters, politicians, and academics.

I talked to a dozen officers—black and white, men and women, rookies and veterans, patrol cops and sergeants, detectives and undercover investigators. They spoke to me freely, on the condition of anonymity, about rookie jitters, job stress, the drug trade, use of force, the mayor, the toll of poverty and violence on children, and the allure of being a cop, among other things.

It’s been said that being a big-city police officer is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror. But the terror can come at any moment. That specter of sudden harm—sometimes paralyzing, sometimes exhilarating—permeates these cops’ observations. As does a sense of duty. Below are some of their stories.

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I. “It’s Not Gonna Be Easy.”
When I first got on the job, I would call my dad every day. One time I was telling him about this stolen car we stopped at Irving and Lincoln. The driver jumps out, starts to run. My partner gets out and grabs him, but the car’s still in drive. It’s going for the front window of a bank. We had a third officer with us that day—his partner was off and he was rolling with us. He chases the car down, jumps through the passenger window, and throws the car into park. Meanwhile, we’re fighting with this guy in the street, and all these people are watching. I’m telling this story, and my dad says, “You know, some of those people watching could be doctors, they could be lawyers, some could be making two, three million dollars a year. But you know what they’re going to go home and talk about tonight to their wives? They’re gonna tell them about what they saw you do.”
I remember my first day out, we had just left the station after roll call. I was with my FTO [field training officer]. We buckle up, and all of a sudden we get hit on the radio. Dispatcher goes, “2512, units in 25 and units on citywide, we got a man with a gun, shots fired, Laramie/Bloomingdale.” I’m like, “OK. Ten-four.” I start to—I don’t want to say shit my pants, but I’m like, “Holy shit, that’s four blocks away and here we go.” I get goose bumps just thinking about it now ’cause you’re brand-new and it’s your first call and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is there going to be a guy there with a gun? Is he going to be shooting at you? Then we pulled up on the scene, and there was nobody there. It was 19-Paul [radio code for a miscellaneous incident]. And I said, “Wow, it’s not as exciting as I thought it would be.”
The police department wasn’t offensively antiwoman when I started. It was more like, “What are we gonna do with you?”
My first day on the street, there were reports of people going into vacant buildings—maybe drug houses, maybe someone hiding guns. We had to go in, clear a building, search it, make sure nobody was in there. They train you for it, and the training comes back if you actually paid attention to it. But just hearing the helicopter and seeing the spotlight coming down through the holes in the roof, and hearing the other coppers on the radio, hearing rustling and “What’s that? Oh, it’s a rat”—it’s like, “Wow, this is out of a movie.” You’re amped up, you’re on 10 the whole time. The adrenaline goes through the roof.
At roll call they told us, “Listen, unless they got your best friend or your wife or one of your kids in the trunk of the car you’re pursuing, don’t pursue it. Terminate the chase.”
I got tired of the despair right off the bat. I never thought people lived like that.
On my second day, someone threw a refrigerator out the window on top of the squad car. Lucky for us, we were in the building. We come out, there’s a big refrigerator.
It was my first murder, the first dead person I’d ever seen. The two [other cops] came out and formed, like, a wedge, and they literally walked me into the house away from the body so I wouldn’t see it. I kind of broke away from them and went to look. This was an elderly woman who had been raped and murdered. A young kid on drugs had come over asking her for money while she was getting dressed for church. It was a brutal scene, and the guys were so careful with me. There was no ribbing or gibing or jokes or anything. It was kind of a solemn moment where I realized this is what I’m gonna be dealing with, and it’s not gonna be easy.
The first time I dealt with something grisly or nasty, it was the day before Thanksgiving. We got a call about a 69-year-old lady who’d slipped crossing the Metra tracks. An express came by and hit her full speed, threw her through the air. Her body hit a partition near where all the people stood, but her head broke off and went another hundred, two hundred feet down the tracks, rolled in the rocks till it came to a stop. First thing I do is get the body bag and get the torso. Then I go down the tracks to pick up the head. It’s lying there in the rocks, a little on its side, kind of looking up at me. The eyes are half-open, and it’s chewed up a little bit—marks on her face and everything. The head’s steaming because it’s still warm in the cold air. I put my hand in the bag, kind of invert it, and just grab the head and pick it up. Then I zip it into the bag. The head’s a lot lighter than I thought it would be. ’Cause who knows what a head weighs? You don’t think about that until you’re holding one.
My FTO told me there were five people you should always approach with extreme caution: people who are high or incapacitated, because they don’t know what they’re doing; ex-cons, because they don’t give a shit; the mentally ill; the complete psychopaths; and juveniles, because they don’t have a formed conscience—they can kill you just as much as look at you. Which is ironic, because my FTO was killed. He was at Foster Park, which is a really beautiful park. There was a disturbance or something, and he approached a young kid on a bicycle. The kid had a gun and shot him right under the vest.
Back at the academy, they tell you to always be aware of your surroundings, but I never imagined that I’d be driving around in a squad car and someone would dive in the window. I was at Michigan and Van Buren, and this guy just started pummeling me. He hit me a few times in the head, then he attacked the computer for some reason, which was actually a godsend, because he hit the emergency button, and that’s when the troops started coming. He was trying for my gun, but it was in the security holster. You can’t pull it out, but he was grabbing on to it. I grabbed his arm and cuffed him, then cuffed the other arm. And then these civilians, God bless them, came and pulled him out of the car by the feet. He was handcuffed, so he landed on the cement face-first. I tried to put the civilians up for an award, but there wasn’t one. So I sent them letters and a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card.
II. “Human Life Means Nothing To Them.”
There used to be certain things that were just off-limits: elderly people, shooting in people’s windows, shooting at cars. The [gang] leaders didn’t allow recklessness. Anybody couldn’t just get a gun. They wouldn’t order a fuckin’ shooting of a guy because he tagged a fuckin’ building.
Even in gang life, you have to have a chain of command, and now you got none. Used to be a park where they all met: Touhy-Herbert. I remember I’d see all these really distinguished older black men with really expensive cars meeting. We’d run their plates and they’re all from the suburbs. But you could tell these guys had their shit together. These were made men. You don’t have that anymore.
These kids are not operating on a human level. They have no sense of right or wrong. Human life means nothing to them.
Once somebody kills somebody, they’re going to kill somebody again. The hardest one is the first one.
I’d argue with guys who’d say, “They’re all animals.” I’d say, “They’re growing up in an atmosphere that produces this type of despair and poverty. It’s the environment that does this, it’s not the person.” And they would say, “You’re an idiot.”
There was a little old lady used to call begging us to come: “They’re out there every day, selling dope.” There’s nothing we can do. The average citizen just doesn’t understand that. I have to explain, “Listen, they’ve got constitutional rights that don’t allow me to go kick their door in just because you’re telling me they’re selling dope upstairs. I don’t have the time to sit on this one house when there’s 50,000 other dope houses all over this district.” They don’t want to hear that. And I don’t blame them.
Can’t fucking stand people on PCP. They look possessed, and you don’t know what their next move is.
It’s just amazing the amount of money some of these spots are making. You’re catching police sometimes, nurses, doctors, firemen, teachers—all these people have dope problems.
Today’s victim is yesterday’s offender.
Who knows what will happen in a couple years with weed laws. They might release everyone. Dear God, that would be a nightmare. These kids are shooting each other because of weed spots. Ogden and St. Louis is a big one. The 0 to 100 block of South Leamington, that’s one of the biggest weed spots in the city. It had, like, eight shootings and a homicide, and it’s all over weed.
The most dangerous job out there is narcotics salesman.
You go on Madison or Roosevelt, and you have this blatant outdoor hawking of narcotics. I didn’t see that on the South Side. They were much more covert. But the violence there was more random.
There are those in the world who want to say all lives matter. Well, that’s bullshit. Some people do more to help society by being dead. If [a gangbanger] getting killed saves three innocent people, it’s a positive. And I don’t feel bad for him. That’s the price of poker.
Sometimes you just have an instinct, the hair on the back of your neck goes up. We pulled up to a stop sign, and there was a woman on the sidewalk who had sunglasses on even though it was almost dark, and there was a guy who was clearly with her but pretending he wasn’t. There was just something wrong with how he was looming behind her. Me and my partner had the same sixth sense about this. So we stopped them, and he got all defensive: “You stopped me because I’m black.” She stood in the background but didn’t walk off. So while my partner was engaging him, I went over to her. I said, “Listen, do me a favor, take your sunglasses off.” She did, and her eyes were black-and-blue and her nose was busted. She motioned to me so that I’d keep her out of sight from him. She pulled her sleeves up, and she had cigarette burns. This woman had been tortured. Later, at the station, she showed us her back. She’d been hit with a chair and thrown down the stairs. This guy went to jail. And we could have easily just drove by.
These intellectual elites, the only thing they know about the human condition they purchased in a college bookstore. They’ve never been in the arena. They’ve never seen it. You can earn a PhD in humanity, or inhumanity, by just driving around in the squad car for an entire summer on the South or West Side.
It was a retail theft, female. As the officers are taking her out, she starts kicking and spitting. So now she has charges for aggravated battery to a police officer. So I ask the officer what happened. She goes, “Well, we got the complaint signed, and then I took her around the store for the walk of shame.” And I’m like, “What’s the walk of shame?” “Well, you know, I’m going to embarrass her because I want everyone to know she’s a retail theft offender.” I go, “You know that you created this situation? All you had to do was walk her out the door, but you embarrassed the fuck out of her, so she had to save face.”
African Americans tend to be a little bit dramatic. That’s not a racist thought. Italians like to use their hands. It’s a cultural thing. I don’t think that some white guys on the force understand that.
A woman calls about a disturbance with her baby. So I go over there. Well, the “baby” turns out to be 50 years old. The woman is yelling and shouting and telling me that she wants me to put her son out. I explain to her that we can’t just put him out, so she hits me with her cane. I literally saw red. I was so mad at myself. I lost face in front of my officers. So I message one of my buddies, another sergeant, and we meet at the Dunkin’ Donuts. And here comes this raggedy-ass pickup truck into the parking lot, and this elderly gentleman gets out of the passenger side. He goes around and he lets this little old lady out. I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s her!” And she comes right in and apologizes to me: “I don’t know what came over me. I don’t know why I hit you. I can’t believe I disrespected the police. I am so sorry.” That’s what police work is a lot of times. It’s not the sexy part. And it’s not the part you wanna tell people about.
If you’re going to fight crime today, you’ve got to be a social media expert.
I know a lot of these guys are hardcore gangbangers and pieces of shit. But the secret is to not let them know that you know that they’re pieces of shit. And when you do that, you win a lot of them over because then they will confide in you. You give them a break on this, you give them a break on that. Or, you know, “Here’s five bucks, get your kid a hamburger.”
It’s like when you go to a corner and there are all these thugs hanging out. Don’t talk to them like they’re thugs. Get out of the car, “Hey, guys, what are you up to? What you doin’? You know, you’re frightening the ladies here. Why don’t you cross the street so that they can get to the store without passing through you.” Sometimes you’re gonna get a real asshole and you have to escalate, but you’ve come in as a human being. If you come in like an asshole, you can’t change your demeanor.
If you get these gangbangers by themselves, they’re cowards. In a police room, they’re not going to be hyperaggressive if there’s no audience, because it’s all about appearances.
I knew from living in the black communities, including the projects, that you don’t open your mouth and talk to the police. The police are identified as an enemy. Black cops understand that more than white cops. If a person gets shot, white cops will start asking questions of people standing on the street. Worst thing you can do. The bad guy or his friends are looking at everybody to see who is snitching. I write my phone number down on a piece of paper.
You’re not prepared to be driving down the street and 5- or 6-year-olds are flipping you off or throwing bottles at the car or shouting, “Fuck 12 [the police]!”
A gangbanger tossed a gun onto a roof, and we’re climbing the gutters trying to get up there. This old man comes out with a ladder. And I say, “Get yourself back in that house.” He says, “I don’t want them around either. I just want to help.” I tell him, “We can’t protect you 24 hours. If you show them that you’re helping us, these gangbangers are gonna throw a rock through your window.”
I had a call one night at Kostner and Belden of an infant not breathing. I run upstairs. The kids, the mom, the father are just going batshit nuts. This kid is white, has no color in his lips. I’ve seen dead kids before, and this kid is dead. So the ambulance gets there a minute or so after me. They run up, take the baby to the ambulance. I go downstairs to see where they’re going to take the body—and the baby’s crying. I go, “What happened?” They go, “Baby came back.” The baby was dead to the world, I’m telling you. It was a fucking miracle.
If you have the idea that the police department is the sole hang-up and the entire crux of the issues that plague the black community, then you have a limited understanding of how the world operates, and you’re going to effect no change.
Domestics are some of the worst calls. You see these kids—they’ve got bedbugs, and they’re living in squalor and sleeping on a filthy mattress that they probably got out of an alley somewhere, and they’ve got nothing to eat. There are cockroaches all over the place. The parents are fighting. These kids, they see this, and they’re numb. Some of them, they walk around with blank stares, just cold. And when you hear about kids dog-fighting or lighting dogs on fire and abusing animals, you can understand. I don’t mean to give them excuses, but how can you have any affection for an animal when nobody’s ever shown you any affection?
If you’re a kid and born to a dope-addicted mother, and there’s no father in the house, how do you even get a sense of “I need to stay in school, I need to keep reading, studying, and doing my homework, I need to go to college and get a job and be successful”? That’s not even in the equation.
We’re coming down the stairs of a building. It’s cold, right around Christmas. We knew that they sold dope in these buildings, out of the lobbies. We hear a sound at the bottom of the stairs. We notice there’s a cubbyhole door, maybe three feet by three feet. We’re thinking there are gangbangers in there, hiding from us. We get our flashlights and we open the door. There was a mother and three kids—an infant, a toddler, and a 7-year-old—with all their worldly possessions, living under the staircase. I don’t know if they had a battery-powered light, but she was reading to them, keeping them warm. The kids were well dressed. The mother was doing the best she could.
Cops, everybody, threw in their five or 10 bucks, and the next day some girl brings a bunch of milk, and then a guy brings a baby bed. Before you know it, you’ve got the whole Englewood police district taking care of a family in the neighborhood. When you see three kids in a house, no Pampers, no food, the heat is off, I think you lose everything about being a policeman in that moment. You’re just a person. But the sergeant who did the fundraiser? The department got a complaint against him for raising funds without permission.
Ninety-nine percent of domestic violence cases go unpunished. Normally, the male of the household is the only breadwinner. We lock him up, and he’s going to be out in eight hours, and they’re going to be back together. Nothing’s going to change.
A kid in fourth or fifth grade transfers to a new school in, like, May. Very unusual. Most kids will finish out the year. The teacher is interviewing him and notices the kid is wearing a long-sleeved shirt, even though it’s very hot in the school, no air-conditioning. She finally says, “Could you roll up your sleeves for me?” So he does and there are loop marks, which are signs of being hit with a cord. She calls the principal, and they call an ambulance to take the boy to the hospital. From neck to toe, marks all over. My detectives come out. They find out that the boy’s got a stepfather who abuses him. They go to the house, and it turns out that the boy doesn’t even have a room. He has a closet. When they feed him, he has to eat off the floor. There was another case with a kid who was a paraplegic. His aunt and her lover beat him to death because he kept urinating on himself. When the detectives got to the apartment, there were scratch marks on the floor from the door to his bed because he had to crawl there. They wouldn’t help him out of the wheelchair. Detectives see things like that all the time. Can you blame them if they interview that stepfather and they wanna beat the shit out of him? You’re interviewing this guy, and he’s smirking, and he’s like, “Yeah, I did that. ’Cause he ain’t my kid and nobody cares about him.” Wouldn’t you just like to grab him by the throat and launch him up on the wall and say, “You know what? I give a shit about him!” In my opinion, if an officer does that, he’s not stepping over the line. He’s a human being responding to evil. If he loses his temper, grabs a guy by the throat, and launches him out of his chair, I got no problem with that.
There are juveniles I’ve arrested where the mom comes into the station bawling her eyes out. The moment she sees him, she starts whupping his ass. You let her get the aggression out for a couple seconds before you pull them apart. You love to see that, because she cares.
I don’t have any issue with an officer using force. I do have an issue with guys who go into a situation, escalate it, “motherfuck” people, or look for a fight. We’re always gonna have guys who want to do that. How do you rein them in? It’s supervision, and we don’t have any supervision.
When the police tell you to stop, you stop, all right?
This isn’t 1850, where we’re going to take eight steps and turn around and face each other and fire like gentlemen. When you’re running away and you’ve got a gun in your hand and I’ve told you 15 times to drop it—screamed at you to drop it—and I’m watching you run toward a school or down a busy street, I don’t have to wait until you turn around. I can shoot you in the back. The law authorizes us to do that.
If you wholly disarmed the police and say that every criminal-­justice-related issue is now gonna be handled by people who hand out hugs and lollipops and job applications, do you think it would have any effect on crime and hatred in any of the neighborhoods? Do you think crime would go down, that gang members would disenroll?
Just ’cause it looks ugly doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
I had a woman running after a man in the projects with a cleaver in her hand. He’s going, “Shoot her! Shoot her!” I just come up to her and pull the cleaver from her hand. People said, “You should have shot her.” She just didn’t look threatening to me.
There are two kinds of fuckups. There’s you fucked up but your heart was in the right place, and there’s you fucked up because you’re a jagoff and you knew what you were doing. Those cops deserve to get stung.
I’ve never met a policeman who would stand there and watch another policeman murder or torture another human being and not say anything.
Surprise! Chicago is a city that’s incredibly segregated and has a long history of racial discord. Surprise! Chicago’s police department lacks personnel, material, and training. Surprise! Chicago’s police department protects who it wants to protect and advances who it wants to advance. C’mon. There’s nothing in that Justice Department report that’s a fucking surprise to anybody.
The problem with the Chicago Police Department and the City of Chicago is not only that there is a lack of genuine leadership but that there’s a lack of courage to lead. We have a law enforcement agency that lives, breathes, and eats nepotism and political favoritism.
People shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, it’s Chicago.” Or “that’s the Chicago way.” We accept things here that no other place would.
Two-minute roll call training is not enough. Once-a-year firearm training is not enough. Once-a-career academy training is not enough. Bulletins aren’t enough. Law enforcement is a profession and should be treated like a profession.
In this day and age, with the shortages that we have and the burden of the cameras and the cell phones, police officers are more reluctant to get out of the car and take the initiative. It’s more chasing the radio, waiting for a crime to occur, rather than trying to prevent a crime by aggressive, proactive patrol.
Don’t ask the people who live in West Town or River North or any of those other fucking neighborhoods where there are coffee shops and art palaces. Go to the South Side, the West Side, ask them how Rahm Emanuel’s administration has worked out for them. It’s an administration of platitudes and political three-card monte.
How do I feel about Rahm and his priorities? I think he’s a fucking piece of shit. Rahm has done more to damage the Chicago Police Department than two Jason Van Dykes, two Laquan McDonalds.
We’ve got a sheriff who runs our jails who just gave a presentation that says jails are the last resort. What are we going to do once we collect all this evidence and track down somebody who fired a gun? We have people who are convicted felons, who were actually caught with a loaded weapon on them, and we cannot secure significant jail time for them.
Felony review is a joke. We get a call of somebody attempting to steal a car. We go to the vehicle, find the guy inside. He’s emptied out the contents of the glove box onto the seat. He’s ripped out the car stereo. It’s on the passenger seat. We arrest him, charge him with burglary to auto. Felony review asks us, “Was the radio on his person? Was the radio outside of the car? Was there any indication that his intent was to take the radio?” You can’t prove he intended to steal the radio. And therefore it’s misdemeanor criminal damage.
We’re so short of detectives. People don’t realize how much work a murder takes to thoroughly investigate. You’re doing triage, and if there’s a great case, that moves to the front of the line. When you have time, you go back, and some of these cases are good cases that we could charge, but we just don’t have the fucking time. As time goes on, these guys get incarcerated, your witnesses get killed, they move away. Ideally, you should get like four murders per year that you can thoroughly investigate, but you’re getting nine to 15, and then all the shit in between. That’s why we’re not getting clearance rates.
Property crimes? Oh, you’re screwed. We don’t even have the [evidence techs] come out. You’re never catching the bad guy. The city’s pretty much surrendered on those.
I come from a police family. My father was a policeman. Two uncles were policemen. I’ve got three cousins who were policemen. Me and five of my best friends are policemen. And we all still live in the same neighborhood. We like familiarity. There’s comfort in that.
When an officer gets shot or killed, there’s a whole segment of society that believes, “Oh, that’s what you signed up for.” No, most of us signed up for helping people.
You’re a walking human shitbag for the most part for eight or nine hours. Everything you hear on the radio, whether it’s your assignment or not, is nothing but bad, bad, bad. Most cops, about 90 percent of them, drink their way through it, numb it up, go to bed, get back up, and do the same shit all over again.
I think every policeman who’s been on the street in this city for 10 years straight has PTSD. But you can’t address it, because if you get diagnosed with PTSD, you can’t carry a gun. What do you do? Deny it and pretend.
You can’t come home and share the details of your day with everybody. They’re all going to start worrying. How can you tell the kids everything you just went through and saw that night? You just can’t. You gotta leave it there.
One cop I know had a gambling problem. We would not let him handle money for the golf outing ’cause it wouldn’t turn out right. We didn’t want him on a search warrant. If we did, we had to fucking hold the money ourselves. So, yeah, I was actually surprised they made him a commander.
This is the only job in the world where if I do something stupid 20 years after I retire, the headline’s going to be “Ex–Chicago Police Officer Does This or That.”
I look at all the guys at this job who retired and died right away. It’s guys who had nothing else. This job was their life. This job was their identity. It was who they were. If they weren’t the police, life wasn’t worth living.
I’ve always looked down my nose at people who sit around and talk about problems, who have all the answers but do nothing. I didn’t want to be that person. I can look back on my career and say, “Yeah, I did something.”