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A Soldier's Story

I joined the police department hoping to make a difference.



Editor's note:

The accuracy of this story by Juan Juarez, a former Chicago police officer, has been called into question by several letter writers, some of whom took issue with Juarez's characterzation of the late John Lyons. Others wondered at the reliability of recollections so many years after the events occured.

We confirmed to our satisfaction that Juarez, who has gone on to work with disadvantaged children on the west coast, was the real thing and felt his recollections were legitimate.

For us, the problem isn't so much what Juraez said as what he didn't say. According to the piece he gave us, he left the department because he was frustrated by the work. After the story was published we learned that he tested positive for drugs after a vacation in Amsterdam and was assigned to desk duty during the investigation. He says he was attending graduate school and planning to leave the force anyway, so he resigned. He thought this was irrelevant and didn't need to be included in the piece. We disagree and we apologize to our readers for not presenting all the facts.

Alison True


"Hammer Down" meant an early roll call--6:20 instead of 10 AM. My first was in July 1992. After just one year as a beat cop, I'd been transferred to Narcotics. I was only 25, the youngest member of the unit.

The entire narcotics force--about 130 officers, most bleary-eyed and unshaven--arrived at headquarters, a two-story brick structure in Bridgeport that nestled inconspicuously between an Illinois Department of Transportation building, a trucking firm, and the railroad tracks. It was the type of place you'd notice only if you were looking for it. We met in a classroom on the edge of a gymnasium we shared with the mayor's security team. "Iron Wedge" was the name for our daily drug operations. Hammer Down was a once-a-month campaign designed to boost the number of arrests--we could easily make 120. For the past two years the small narcotics unit had been making more arrests than many other units in the police department. That helped legitimize our existence and justify our exorbitant demands for overtime wages, special vehicles, unlimited gas, unique communication devices, and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment--and for more officers, though President Bush's war on drugs was helping to pay the cost of moving more people into the unit.

The assembly looked anything but official. There were no uniforms. Most of us in the room could never have been pegged as cops. We wore shorts, jeans, T-shirts, beards, dreadlocks--whatever we needed to fit the part. To ordinary citizens we looked like gangbangers, street trash, or just other citizens. But we were careful not to look like anyone in particular, and we wore nothing that would identify us with any gang--we didn't want to be mistaken for rivals.

"Street teams," said the commander to the roomful of now caffeinated narcs, "you guys are doing some awesome work. The numbers of heads have risen even though the total weights [of contraband] have dropped. Keep hitting those crack hot-line spots."

And with that, we descended on the city's worst neighborhoods, mainly on the south and southwest sides, targeting anyone selling crack or heroin. I recall feeling incredibly fortunate to be allowed to fight in this war--I had the enthusiasm of a man who'd finally found his calling. I'd bought completely into the program: The bad guys were the drug dealers, mostly lower-class, minority gangbangers. Our job was to rid the city of them, making the streets safe for children and their parents and grandparents. Only slowly would I realize what was really going on.

I grew up near Ashland and Addison. Summers were brutal, because the only way to get to the lake was to go through the gangs' neighborhoods, which everyone knew was risky. Just to the east, near Wrigley Field, the notorious Latin Kings ruled Wilton Avenue. To the south, around Hamlin Park, the Deuces and PBC flourished. Family friends also complained to my father, a longtime police officer, about the heavy street-gang activity on the near south side and the near west side. I wanted to help save the city from the gang problem and other social ills, and as I grew older I decided I could do that by becoming a cop.

I still felt that way my first day on the job, as a beat cop in the gang-ridden 14th District--despite the first piece of advice I was given. John Lyons, who would be my field training officer for the next 60 days, was a classic "kick ass now, take names later" kind of cop. "Juan," he said, "be aggressive. And don't worry about OPS."

According to the Chicago Police Department's annual crime-statistics report, the Office of Professional Standards, which is responsible for investigating questionable police conduct, dismisses over 90 percent of excessive-force complaints against officers. From 1996 through 1998 citizens filed 9,110 police-brutality complaints, and OPS determined that 8,338 were filed without merit and subsequently dismissed them. And then there were the incidents that never got reported.

"Hey, motherfucker, open this goddamn door before I kick it in!" bellowed Lyons, red faced, neck vein pulsing. "I'm gonna give you 'bout two seconds."

Pounding music shook the door as we stood on the front porch of the house, which was in the 1300 block of North Greenview. We were responding to a complaint about noise, and I thought this was clearly the kind of incident that should be settled with a simple 4- (noise disturbance) Paul (peace restored) or 4-Frank (some other police action taken). At least that's what I'd learned in the academy.

"Hey! Open this motherfuckin' door!" Lyons yelled as he brought his knee up to his chest and shot his leg forward. The second before his foot met the door it creaked open. The force of the kick sent the person behind the door flying back about ten feet and landed him on his ass.

Other cops loved Lyons, a 25-year veteran, because he didn't take shit from anyone. He was a cop's cop--hardworking and diligent and aggressive. Hundreds of cops had learned from him, and many had adopted his mentality.

"Hey, stupid! I'm a cop. You do what I say when I say! Understand?" he said, straddling the chest of the scrawny white kid who lay dazed on the floor. He had a gash on his forehead, and blood was streaming down the bridge of his nose.

"Can you fuckin' hear me?" Lyons demanded, grabbing a fistful of the kid's long brown hair. "Or is the music too fuckin' loud? 'Cause it is to me!"

The kid's face was a blur as Lyons yanked his hair side to side the way a rottweiler shakes a toy. The blood kept pouring from the cut on his forehead.

"I can hear you, I can hear you," he pleaded. "Let go of my hair. C'mon man, let go of my hair."

The kid was what Lyons called an urban pioneer. "These kids," he'd informed me on the way to the call, "are friggin' slackers. Who the fuck do they think they are? They come to live in the shit, they deserve to be treated like shit. Their parents are loaded, so they can afford to be art fucks. Escaping responsibility, if you ask me. They remind me of those friggin' longhaired hippies. I was at the convention in '68. I know how to handle these spineless twats."

The kid looked like a regular joe to me, except for the streaming blood.

The surrounding neighborhood--Humboldt Park, once primarily poor, working-class Mexican and Puerto Rican--was changing. The street gangs still clung to it, but gentrification was slowly sweeping them away. Boarded-up windows and graffiti-covered walls were being replaced by new three-story houses. Times were changing, but in Lyons's mind, the kid and those like him represented the past--antiauthority, rebellious, and confrontational, just like the youth of the late 60s and early 70s.

Lyons was stubborn. Once he'd decided on a course of action he didn't bend. He was short, with a Vise-Grip handshake and a bulldog jawline. He surrendered none of what he considered his personal space. "You need to turn this shit down!" he hollered, as he resumed pulling the kid's hair. "Your fuckin' neighbor is complainin' 'bout this shit! Where do you think you're at anyway?"

"Man, all you had to do was ask!" the kid shot back. "Get off me, and I'll turn it down."

Still glaring at him, Lyons released the kid's hair and got off his chest. The kid grabbed a T-shirt from the couch and used it to try to stop the bleeding as he walked over to the receiver and lowered the volume.

"Listen! If we have to come back here you're gonna spend the night in jail. And I'm sure the brothers would love to get their hands on a lily-white ass like yours. So don't make us come back. If you do you'll be sorry! Understand?"


"What don't you fuckin' understand?"

"I don't think it's against the law--"

"Oh! Now you're gonna fuckin' tell me about the law! See! That's the fuckin' problem--you're thinking!" Lyons stabbed a finger into the kid's temple. "Did I ask you to think? Do yourself a favor and don't fuckin' think! Don't make us come back! Am I clear?"

"What about my door?" the kid said. The hinges were almost torn out.

That was enough for Lyons. "You just earned yourself a ticket to jail, asshole!" He whipped out his handcuffs and cuffed the kid so fast he was stunned. "Sounds like your fuckin' problem. Here's some advice--don't stand in front of flying doors." And with that, we left, my first arrest in tow.

As we walked back to the car, Lyons said, "Code that out, rookie."

I didn't know the code for that one. It wasn't a 4-Paul or -Frank, that's for sure. And I had no idea what the charge would be. At the station Lyons said, "Disorderly conduct--works all the time."

I looked at the kid, whose blood was beginning to dry. "What about medical attention for the kid?" I asked.

"Fuck 'im, damn hippie! He deserved it." Lyons paused. "You learn anything back there, kid?"

I did, but I could never tell him. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't have the balls to say anything. Instead, I just nodded, as I would after innumerable similar instances with him and other partners over the next seven years. In retrospect, my silence was a crime.

The rest of my first year, which I spent mostly in Humboldt Park and Logan Square, was typical for a cop. One of the worst aspects of it was the incidents that only we saw. On a scorching July evening on a newly tarred stretch of North Avenue near Central Park, Lyons and I were called to the scene of an accident. A motorcyclist had put his bike down more than 50 yards before the intersection and left a trail of brain matter and fluid on the street. The speedometer cable had snapped and was locked at 120 mph. Lyons joked, "At least he was wearing sunglasses."

Soon I'd seen death so frequently that I found myself becoming jaded to the point of callousness. Sympathy and compassion were feelings I tuned out. Humor masked the impact of death far better and was much more comforting. I realized that almost everyone on the force dealt with death the same way.

One day a homeless woman somehow managed to get her foot caught under a salvage-yard fence. We arrived on the scene to find that Leroy Brown, the guard dog, had gnawed the woman's foot off. It was the kind of story that made for roll-call humor.

Another day my partner and I were called to check on an old Polish woman who hadn't been heard from for several days. She'd been dead for some time when we arrived. A chunk of flesh was missing from her thigh, and her lower left arm was gone. We heard a low, steady growl from the pantry. I looked at my partner, stepped back, and as we both unholstered our guns a dog appeared with the woman's arm in its mouth. It dropped the arm, howled, then lunged at us. My partner killed it with one shot. We later joked about reporting the incident as an armed robbery.

The holidays were usually reserved for domestic problems. On Thanksgiving my partner and I responded to a call in the 3200 block of West Le Moyne and arrived to find a man with a six-inch knife stuck through his left hand. He wanted the turkey breast. She wanted sex. There was no compromise.

On Christmas an angry Puerto Rican woman wrapped her sleeping, drunken husband in lines of Christmas lights, turned them on, then poured a cauldron of scalding water on him. The white plastic melted into his skin.

The smell of death got into my leather jacket, my shirt, my pants. I retired the jacket for three months in an attempt to get rid of the stench. After six months as a cop, I began to wonder if I was looking at a career of dealing with death. I didn't seem to be able to escape it. It was always just a radio assignment away. I'd seen it before becoming a cop--in a casket surrounded by the warmth of family. That death had come at the end of a full life. Now it had taken on new forms, and if it wanted you it took you. The more I saw of it the closer it seemed to me.

I also began to wonder how dealing with stiffs and fabricating disorderly conducts was helping society. How were Humboldt Park and Logan Square benefiting from my presence as a cop? What was I doing that made a difference? I was tied down to a radio and had no freedom to do real investigations looking for real criminals. What exactly was I serving? Who was I protecting?

I knew I had to get away from all the death and the mundane routine of listening to a police radio. But I also knew I had to finish my year's probation in the patrol division. So I made sure to do all the perfunctory things I was asked. I wrote my quota of tickets for each 30-day period--30 movers and parkers. I wrote up curfews and dog bites. I did bus checks. I became more aggressive on the street and on paper. I'd been schooled by veteran officers in the fine art of case-report writing and knew how to make trifling misdemeanors sound like heinous felonies. Well-written reports equaled trials and convictions, which equaled court time for me, which equaled overtime. The bottom line became getting paid. Helping society got pushed to the backseat, and my desire for advancement moved up front.

Every piece of paper with a records division number proved productivity, and I was being productive. I believed that a hardworking cop would get noticed and would be rewarded. This would have made some of my colleagues laugh. They all knew it's not what you know but who you know.

I still believed I could serve the community as a cop, but I thought I would have to be in a special unit. I wanted to go after the big criminals--the gun-toting, drug-slinging gang members, the Mercedes-driving kingpins, the menaces to society who made children afraid to go outside and play.

Shortly after my probation ended, a department memo announced that the Organized Crime Division's narcotics section, then headquartered at 3540 S. Normal, was seeking new blood. They wanted young, aggressive, streetwise cops. Spanish speakers were preferred. I jumped at the opportunity. I sent in my application, a resumé, and a letter of intent, then waited for a response.

"Boy, you dreamin'," my partner told me one night after making a pinch for possession of crack. "Ain't no way in hell you gonna end up at 3540 without having a Chinaman--and you ain't got no Chinaman."

I agreed that I didn't know anyone on the job who had rank, but I was firmly convinced that the department rewarded diligent cops. A few months later I was granted an interview. My euphoria subsided when I found out that just about everyone who'd applied was being interviewed. But I'd heard that the unit was planning to double its size, so there had to be a spot for me somewhere.

Commander Eugene Karczewski and some of his top administrators interviewed me, and I thought it went well. But one thing I saw at 3540 made me wonder whether I had a chance. There wasn't one cop there who was even close to my age. All of them were veterans--many looked as if they were days away from retirement. The majority were white, and they all seemed too square to work successfully on the street-drug scene. I later found out that until then Narcotics had been a secretive unit with only 50 cops--50 for the whole city. None of it made any sense. I shrugged my shoulders and thought what would be would be. At least I'd tried.

A month and a half after my interview, I'd just finished processing two auto thieves when I was called into the watch commander's office. Captain Richard Braithwaite--a prince of a guy who was later struck down by cancer--told me, "I don't know who the fuck you know, Juan, but you'll never have to shave again, you lucky fuck."

I had no idea what was going on. Was I being dumped to the deuce, the Second District, the home of the Robert Taylor Homes? Transferred to some other district? I must have looked confused.

"Go check the transfer order, rook," Braithwaite said, smiling.

I went to the front desk and saw my partner, who gave me a shit-eating grin. "You ain't got no Chinaman, huh?" he said.

I looked at the transfer order and couldn't believe my eyes. I was going to Narcotics, as part of the largest transfer order in its history. I was finally going to be given the chance to make a real impact, playing a part in President Bush's war on drugs.

On my first day at 3540 S. Normal I was assigned to Sergeant Eddie Hicks's team, which did street work, or "wedging." Operation Iron Wedge was an incredibly low-risk, high-arrests mission. A buy officer would purchase contraband, usually crack or heroin, in minuscule quantities, ranging from a tenth of a gram to a gram, for $10 to $100. Possession or delivery of crack, no matter how small the amount, was always a felony, pure and simple. And it meant automatic jail time.

I soon understood that this was the reason for the huge transfer order--and the reason that almost all of the transferees were minorities. The narcotics unit needed minority officers for the war on crack because few white undercover cops could go into the ghetto and come out with crack or heroin. So we were to be the ground troops, while the 50 mostly white veterans took the elite, high-level assignments. And piddly street dope was what the unit now wanted, because that meant lots of arrests, and lots of arrests would make it look like the city was doing something about drugs.

What I didn't understand then was that someone with a felony on his record would have a hard time finding a job, would never have the option of going into the military as a way out of his crummy neighborhood, would never even be able to vote. As a result, all of the people we would arrest--most of them teens, most male, almost all minorities--would have a hard time getting a second chance.

Every morning the teams--usually four cars, two officers in each--would be assigned in pairs to communities for the day. The areas were almost always in the targeted "crime-infested" neighborhoods of the city--Humboldt Park, Rogers Park, Uptown, and practically the whole south and west sides.

The buy officers on my team, Nica and Colette (all the names of the undercover officers have been changed), would check tips that had come in on the city's crack hot line or they'd cruise past hot spots where we'd been successful before. Once they saw a potential suspect, one of them would radio Sergeant Hicks, who was in an unmarked car. He would then assign the other buy officer to set up as the "eyeball."

The eyeball's job was to give a radio play-by-play of the transaction for everyone else on the team and to watch the suspect until the transaction was over and the offender in custody. All transmissions were for our ears only; the radios the narcotics unit had were specially coded and no scanner could pick up their frequencies. That helped with the element of surprise.

The eyeball would describe the suspect--clothing, colors, hairstyle, shoes, identifying marks--and offer a succinct but thorough account of the transaction. The eyeball would also describe the suspect's actions, who else was around, and other details of the scene. The buy officer would then get back to a radio, tell the enforcement team whether a transaction had been made, and say how much was paid and what the serial number on the bill was.

Those of us who acted as enforcement--in unmarked cars, like everyone else--would either park or drive slowly around the perimeter of the location, then move in to take the suspect into custody by whatever means necessary. Sometimes the suspect ran. After most foot chases ended, it was routine procedure to make the suspect realize that he should never even think about running again. Depending on the mood of the arresting officers, that usually meant a major or a minor beating. It's understood on the streets--even as a kid I knew it--that if you run from the cops you'll get some lumps. Any suspect who didn't flee but wanted to fight would always, always lose. And fighting or fleeing meant the cops had the justification for their use of force.

Many days spent wedging were unremarkable, but some provided vast insights. In August 1995 we already had the daily quota--five transactions and six arrests--but Sergeant Hicks, with whom I was riding, wanted one more. "We'll have one less to do tomorrow," he said, winking. I'd been wedging for four years now, and I couldn't see how one more buy of 0.1 grams of cocaine from one more minority kid on the south side was going to help stem the flow of drugs in the city.

The radio scratched in. "Sarge, it looks like there's a possibility at 54th and Indiana," said Colette, who already had three buys. "Some hype seems to be directing traffic. Nica, if that's something you'd like to try, be my guest."

"Cool, I'm coming that way," Nica radioed back. "Thanks, 'Lette."

"I'm settin' up," said Colette, giving the exact address where she'd be eyeballing the transaction. No more than ten seconds later her voice returned. "All right, sarge. I see Nica coming down the block. She's parking on the east side of the street, approaching a wino that has on black with dirty old stripes-on-the-side sweatpants and a Bulls three-peat champs T-shirt." Colette did by far the best play-by-play of anyone in Narcotics, and as a result we never lost a suspect when she was eyeballing.

"He's five foot nine or ten, salt and pepper close to the head, and sorta thick for a hype. Around 130 pounds. Nica's conversating, and the hype pointed her to the gangway south of 54--. Uh-oh. Some shorty's going to the gangway too. Can't but be all of 11. Man, they keep gettin' younger and younger." She sighed. "He's got on a Bulls 23 jersey, stands about four foot two and 80 pounds if he's lucky. He just made the exchange with Nica, and she's headin' back to her car. She flashed a positive." Nica always indicated a purchase by tipping her hat.

"I suggest that you all be slick," said Colette, "'cause I bet five to one that shorty's got some rabbit in him."

I'd long since learned from street buying to be prepared for anything. You could never second-guess a suspect. The kid's way too young to want to box, I thought. Chances are he'll run.

"Nica's back in her car," said Colette. "Stand by."

"Sarge, that's a positive, and you want the shorty that turned me," said Nica over her radio. "You got him in your sights, 'Lette?"

"Sho'nuff. He ain't in no hurry to go nowhere."

"OK, enforcement," said Hicks. "Move in. I want two from the north, and I got the alley." We would cover the alleys and gangways first, because they were first choice as an escape route. Out front was Indiana Avenue, an immense street--five lanes wide, with two for parking--that was littered on both sides with vacant lots. Definitely second choice.

Hicks eased the car down 54th, turned into the alley, drove to the rear of the building, and waited as the other cars pulled up out front. My adrenaline was pumping. I was ready to jet out of the car if the kid ran.

"Sarge, we got him. Hey Nica, what's the numbers and denomination?" It was Enrique--on one of the few days he blessed us with his presence. Usually he was out searching for a big bust.

"Hey Ricky, you done meeting with your informant?" cracked Bill, referring to a ploy Enrique used regularly when he wanted to duck wedging.

"243D as in David, and that would be on a 20," said Nica. Taunting Enrique, she crooned, "Is that you, baby?"

"10-4, we got it," said Enrique. "You want us to grab the hype for turning the deal?"

"No, you can cut him," said Hicks. "I think we have enough work with the juve. Why don't I take him off your hands for notification [of his family]. You guys can head in and start the paperwork. Mick, make sure you do a CAR [contact arrest report] before we scoop him."

"No need to tell me, sarge," said Mick. "I got one going now." Mick wasn't much of a buy officer, but he knew the paper routine--he was the best paper man in the unit.

Hicks slowly drove out of the alley and around to where Mick and Enrique were parked on Indiana. The kid was in the backseat of their car, and though he was a child, he had the hardest face I'd ever seen. He stared past Mick and Enrique's shoulders and through the windshield, his eyes vacant, as if he hadn't been fazed by his arrest.

Mick opened the rear door of the car and walked the cuffed kid over to us. He was a light shade of brown and thin as a thread. The thickest parts of his body were the knots of his kneecaps and elbows. I was amazed that he didn't just slip out of the handcuffs--his arms were about two inches in circumference. But they hung lifelessly, hands clasped. He looked like he was about to snap under his own weight.

"C'mon, shorty," Mick said. "He's living with his grandma down the street, first floor. She's home as we speak, or so he says. By the way, one year off--he's only ten."

"Put 'im in the car," said Hicks, shaking his head. Maybe he was tired of seeing this day in, day out. I know it was wearing on me. So many kids unaware of childhood. So many lives wasted. Even more disheartening was that society was making no visible effort to change the situation.

"OK, shorty," said Hicks. "What's the story?"

"Ain't nuttin' goin' on here except me goin' to 51st Street," the kid said, his voice resigned, cynical. "Just anotha day in the hood."

"Who's at the house now?" Hicks asked, resignation in his own voice.

"My grandma, and she don't care one way or anotha. Might as well not even go by the house, 'cause she don't want me no way." He sank deeper into the seat.

"How do you know that?" I said, turning to look at him.

He stared back, disbelieving and indignant. "'Cause I do," he said. "If youse want, go to the house. But I tellin' you straight up, it don't matter."

"What about your ma, your dad, or your grandmother?" I said. "What about the schools?"

Hicks shook his head sympathetically but nudged me as if to say don't go there. But something about this kid had finally forced me to open my eyes and see the whole picture.

"Look at this neighborhood, man," the kid said. "School's a fuckin' joke. My grandma, she just got stuck with me. My mother dropped me off a month ago and telled her she'd be back, and she ain't been back yet. I think she run off." His chest was heaving.

As we pulled up in front of the house, Hicks said, "Hey shorty, what's your name?"

"David," he said diffidently.

I felt stupid for not asking him earlier, and even more so for not looking at the CAR Mick had done. "David," I said, "I'm going to see your grandmother and notify her where you'll be and when she'll be able to pick you up. Is there anything you want me to tell her?" I thought I sounded a little more hopeful and reassuring than usual. Maybe I was trying to reassure myself about my role, but I wondered if I was facilitating his demise. I surely wasn't helping him. Yet I knew what I had to do and where he had to go. And where he would spend the rest of his life.

"Naw, I ain't got nuttin' to say."

I walked to the front door and rang the bell. It was a slightly run-down building on a war-torn block. Nothing on the north side compares with the deprivation and desolation of this neighborhood. To the left was a boarded-up, crumbling graystone. To the right were thigh-high grass and weeds surrounding a burned skeleton of a car and heaps of garbage. On the south side--and I'm not talking about Bridgeport, Brighton Park, East Hyde Park, or Beverly--it's not uncommon to see entire blocks that are virtually vacant, with only a few decrepit houses strewn among the rubble and trash.

The door opened a crack, and a woman's angry voice knifed through. "Yes! Who is it?"

"Ma'am, my name is Officer Juarez, and I'm with the Chicago Police Department. May I have a word with you?"

"If it's about David, I don't wanna hear it. By God! All that child is is trouble and always up to gettin' on my last nerves. Just like his mother." The door closed, and I heard the security chain being released. Then it opened. The woman looked tired and worn down, but she probably wasn't more than 45 years old.

"It's about David, and he's outside in the car," I said mechanically. "He's just been arrested for selling crack to an undercover police officer, and he's being taken to 51st Street. We'll have to process and turn him over to a juvenile officer."

"He was just there two days ago," she said, throwing her hands in the air. "I swear I don't know what to do with that there boy. He's a bad seed and his mama's a bad seed, too. I haven't seen her for weeks. She just drops the boy with me and tells me that she be back. And she ain't been back yet." Flecks of spit flew from her tight lips. "He's my own flesh and blood. I couldn't leave him out on the streets, ya know?"

"What about your husband or the boy's father? Couldn't they be of some assistance?"

"Hmmmph," she said, the muscles in her face tightening. "They both wound up in jail, and when they get out the first thing they wants to do is live the years that had been taken from them--and that don't mean raisin' no family. I don't even know where or even if my man's still alive. I don't give two shits no way."

I was getting in way over my head. There was nothing I could do. "Sorry to hear that, ma'am. We're going to 51st now, and he'll be there for an hour or so. May I have your name for notification purposes?"

What more could I say? "Thanks, I hope you have a nice day" didn't seem appropriate, so I just said bye. The door closed, and the chain rattled back into place.

As I went back to the car I felt heavy with the reality of lives most of society is unaware of. Or doesn't care about. And may never find out about.

I opened the car door and saw David's eyes were swollen and tears had streaked his face. He was trying to wipe them off with the back of his hand.

"What happened, sarge?" I asked, not knowing whether I should.

"We were talking, and I asked him what he wants out of life."

"What'd he say?"

"To have a home and a family."

And that's how it went, day in, day out. I would see the same faces and hear the same stories nearly every day.

We made 106 felony arrests on my first Hammer Down day in 1992, 14 shy of our quota. All told, narcs purchased a measly 28.2 grams of contraband and confiscated another 45 grams, along with $676--an average of only $6.38 and 0.7 grams of contraband per arrest. But to the brass, the arrest numbers were all that mattered, and we had targeted the neighborhoods that gave us those numbers.

After five years of targeting those neighborhoods I began to believe that what we were doing served only to maintain or expand the prison system and to keep lower-class minorities down. All the arrests we'd made hadn't put a dent in the street-drug trade, though it had helped to ensure that lots of people were going to find it hard to change their lives. In December 1999, Roosevelt University's Institute for Metropolitan Affairs released a report on how local, state, and federal funds were being allocated in the war on drugs in Cook County. Out of $1.2 billion, 83 percent was going toward the prosecution and incarceration of violators, a mere 14 percent went for treating drug abuse, and only 3 percent went toward education and prevention.

More and more, I questioned my job and my purpose in life. I felt I'd been going through my years as a cop with blinders on, choosing the things I wanted to see and how I wanted to see them. I left the narcotics unit at the end of 1996. According to police department annual reports, 52,903 people were arrested for narcotics citywide that year, 42,541 of them minorities. In 1997, 54,679 would be arrested, about 80 percent of them minorities. And in 1998 the number would be 58,583--90 percent of them minorities.

My disillusionment rose with the numbers, and in 1997 I left the department for good. I hadn't made a difference.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Damon Locks.

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