Riding Along

Last night I did something I should have done 20 years ago: went for a ridealong with the Chicago Police Department.  V I Warshawski has a prickly relationship with cops, but intense loyalty to her police officer father, Tony.  The Chicago police have been uniformly generous in their response to my work, even when it hasn’t flattered the department, and even when I’ve gotten my facts wrong.  It’s been high time that I learned enough about their job to write about them with deeper authenticity.

I know Lieutenant Dave Case because he wrote a quite wonderful police procedural novel a few years back, and he’s friends with another crime-writing cop I know, Michael Black–who’s novel, Hostile Takeover, is a raw, terrifying look at a sheriff’s department sunk deep in corruption.

Michael Black is on the left

Lt. Case is now the watch commander for the 9 p.m. – 6a.m. shift in Chicago’s 18th District, which covers the Division Street bars, the Cabrini Green public housing complex, and some of the glitzy part  of North Michigan Avenue.  Even in the most crime-infested parts of the south and west sides, people stop maiming and murdering each other by two in the morning, but the tourists and youth who frequent the city’s bar scene keep going until 6 a.m.

Lt Case is a Sox fan, but I like him, anyway

I rode with Sergeant Wiberg, considered by his peers and subordinates to be one of the CPD’s best supervisors.

map of the 18th district

Here’s what I learned.

Even on a night of pouring rain, the crowds are thick all over the area between Division Street and Chicago Avenue.  About half the women wear four to six-inch heels.  No one stops to let a cop car through.  People get drunk and do “stupid” things–the police term for anything from fighting to running over a Chicago cop–which happened a week ago.  Some of the stupid stuff I saw: a couple fighting in the back seat of a cab.  The cabbie called for help and the male half of the sketch emerged covered in blood.  I didn’t get to see the woman.  They wanted to drive to a suburb a good 40 miles away, and everyone agreed separate cabs was the answer.  The man got angry when the police wouldn’t summon a cab for him: “You’re public servants,” he shouted through his bloody mouth.  “You’re supposed to serve me.”

I was thinking, these guys and girls, as the cops refer to each other, all have tasers, guns, and batons–don’t cop an attitude! But the guys and girls stayed cool, laughed it off and moved on to the next stupidity.

Here’s what else I learned.  The number one concern is keeping everybody safe.  Sgt Wiberg knows where every car in his unit is at all times, and when someone is in a tricky situation, he’s on it.  He’s not going to leave anyone alone on the street.  Number two–if you’re not enjoying the work, you should not be a cop. Number three, Chicago cops refer to each other as “coppers.” I thought that was only in British crime novels.

The department budget is stretched so thin that many of the cars have 150000 miles on them.  And sergeants, who can effectively supervise about 5 to 8 patrol teams, are being required to supervise 30.  Among the things the sergeant does–fills out a report on each incident one of his patrols is involved in.  Do that for thirty units who are responding to about sixty calls an hour–looking at the 911 calls stacking up on the sergeant’s computer screen–and you can see it would be hard to keep track of street action.

Don’t respond to panhandlers, especially at night–they can often be pickpockets as well.  And, speaking of pickpockets, be careful when you stop to listen to the kids drumming on their overturned buckets: they’re often distracting passersby while members of their gang pick pockets and purses.

Homeland Security has cameras at every intersection in downtown Chicago.

I learned that Cabrini Green smells horrible–buckets of disinfectant poured over the floors and stairwells to mask the stink of humans relieving themselves wherever they happen to be standing.

I learned that the city looks different from the front of a squad car than from a civilian car.  The camaraderie of the squad room, especially this squad room, feels very special and I loved being part of it. I tried to be alert to the street, especially after we stopped at a 7-11 and learned that punks had been in minutes earlier to steal a case of beer–but Sergeant Wiberg kept pointing out people and situations that I hadn’t noticed.

I watched two young coppers gently and deftly respond to a young woman whose ex-boyfriend beat her up in a car park.

I learned that a bullet proof vest weighs a ton.  Unfortunately, today, my neck and shoulders are reminding me that the injuries I got in a car crash 4 years ago have not left me behind.  I want to write a story about a police officer–Liz Milkova, who makes a cameo appearance in my upcoming V I novel–but today it’s icepacks and rest.  But Sergeant Wiberg, getting off duty at 6, went home this morning for 3 hours of sleep, got up to go to church, take part in his kids’ sporting events for the day, and is back on duty at 9 tonight, while I get to lounge around.  He called me his partner, so all I can say is, sorry partner, I’m letting the team down today but I promise to return to duty soon.

  • genny from jersey

    Sara, what an incredible experience. Your selection of the hours and the district really gave you a hardcore view of life for the police and the citizens. I’m sure it’s night you’ll never forget.

  • It sounds like you got quite an education! I’m sure that this will be reflected in your upcoming novels, and think it was very generous of Sergeant Wiberg to provide you with this experience.
    I’m also glad that it was you and not me experiencing the smell of Cabrini Green…. give me the fresh country air on the ranch any day… well, except during spring thaw…

  • Shirley

    I thought that Cabrini Green had been cleaned up and made into a new type of development. Guess I dreamed that?

    Police work sounds like very tedious work because you never know when the next eruption will happen. Then there’s the mountain of routine, boring but necessary paperwork. Takes a special kind of person to be a good officer.

    VI is probably glad she isn’t an officer there even though she has enough adventures of her own.

  • That sounds great, as long as I’m not the one out there with them.

  • admin

    All but two of the Cabrini high-rises have been torn down, and the one I was in is slated for rehab. A lot of the residents are understandably fiercely protective of the building they’ve called home for decades, so I do feel a bit Yuppish reacting only to smell and bullet holes in doors.
    It was a great experience, but, as I sat down to work on a short story yesterday, I realized there was way more that I still didn’t know!

  • Oh, that’s just awesome! I have nothing but the utmost respect for most everyone in law enforcement. My son is a probation officer and some of his stories send chills up my spine.

    I remember Cabrini Green. We lived in St. Charles and I wanted to go to the Crate & Barrel outlet which was on North Avenue. We hadn’t lived there very long and I was REALLY naive. I looked at the map and thought, “Hey, I can drive there all the way from St. Charles on North Avenue!” So I set off. Well, the closer I got to Chicago the scarier North Avenue became. (Iron gates on all the windows and doors, for example.) At one point I looked to the right and saw the back side of some GIGANTIC letters rising out of the ground. They must have been 30 feet high. I spelled them out (reading backwards, of course) C-A-B-R-I-N-I-… and that’s when it hit me…I was at Cabrini Green. Every day on the news somebody was killed at Cabrini Green or a child fell out a ten story window or some other disaster happened. And there I was. It took my breath away.

    Crate & Barrel wasn’t very much further and I made it fine but I’ve never forgotten that trip into Chicago.

    Keep us posted on your upcoming rides. Just be very careful.

  • Cheryl, your story sounds like my first time at Cabrini–I was tutoring in an after-school program where the kids came from Cabrini, and I often drove them home, since the guy who was supposed to do it was usually drunk. I shook from the moment we passed Clybourne until the last kid had climbed out. I kept telling myself, “They live here, I can at least drive in and out without shaking,” but I always did.

  • I know! And the thing that really amazed me was that it was around Christmas and I was going to the Hard Rock Cafe to pick up a couple of gifts and Hard Rock was only a few blocks away. The juxtaposition of poverty and prosperity…I had no idea!

  • I thought that Cabrini Green had been cleaned up and made into a new type of development. Guess I dreamed that?

    Police work sounds like very tedious work because you never know when the next eruption will happen. Then there’s the mountain of routine, boring but necessary paperwork. Takes a special kind of person to be a good officer.

    VI is probably glad she isn’t an officer there even though she has enough adventures of her own.

  • A. Joyce

    “Homeland Security has cameras at every intersection in downtown Chicago.”
    Dear lord.  Really?

  • tootsie

    why didn’t Case ever write another book. His book was one of the best I ever read.

  • I wish he would, too, but he’s juggling a huge amount with his police responsibilities and family responsibilities.


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