Thursday, December 25, 2014

Cops keep a Christmas vigiil

     This story of patrolling the Second District on Christmas Eve, 1986, was one of my favorites — it gave me a lot of respect for the police, respect that I try to maintain, despite the vigorous way that cops frequently undermine themselves.
    The mid-1980s city it shows is in some regards gone — not only in the many landmarks, the housing projects and gang headquarters and such, but in the way the police actually let the media watch them work. They’ll say their trust was betrayed; in my view, they got scared, and insular and angry, curling up in the tight defensive ball that serves them so poorly with the media they despise and the communities they screech up to in their squad cars and try to serve and protect. 
     If you notice how long this story is — 2300 words — you’ll see another change. The paper does sometimes print stories of this length, but rarely, and I doubt that I’d get this in, since it reveals no pressing scandal or hard news. Which is a shame, because I think it shows the challenges police face in a more significant way than any five second video clip or outraged union statement. 

     It's 6 o'clock Dec. 24, and Tom Eich, badge No. 17815, and David
Baez, badge No. 17696, are philosophical as their patrol car sweeps by
the landmarks of their police district—the Robert Taylor homes,
Stateway Gardens, the Ida B. Wells homes, DuSable High School.
      "The low ones on the totem pole get [Christmas Eve duty]," says
Baez, 36, who has been with the force only a year. "Seniority will get
you the day off."
      "My wife comes from a police family, so she more or less expected
that I would have to work on Christmas," says 33-year-old Eich, a
former electrician who joined the police force 11 months ago. "It's
part of the job."
     Riding in Car 211, the pair has been on duty since 3 p.m. So far
the shift has been quiet—a domestic disturbance and a "nut call," a
man who thought he heard noises coming from the walls.
      Baez drives, chewing gum. He is a handsome man with black, curly
hair. Eich is balding, with a sandy mustache and glasses. He works the
radio, glancing from side to side, looking for trouble.
      The Second District may be the smallest in the city, but it
includes 64 Chicago Housing Authority buildings. As many of those who
celebrate Christmas prepare for the evening's festivities, Baez
randomly turns down driveways, alleys — places most Chicagoans have
never been and would never dream of going.
      "You shouldn't have a pattern," says Baez. "You want to be
unsystematic. If you get a pattern, they'll time you, and know where
you'll be."
      From time to time, strange whistles echo in the darkness.
     "Signals," says Eich. "To let them know the police are coming.
It's something like the old cowboy-and-Indian days."
     It's time for a swing by the squat Ida B. Wells homes, and through
the low canyons of the high-rise buildings.
     "They like to shoot at the cars," says Baez. "But someone has to
go in there. The worst is when the elevator's broken and you have to
use the stairs. Sometimes they put in a call for the top floor, and
ambush you on the way up."
      The car rolls past a pair of men warming themselves beside a
blazing trash can at a lot on the corner of Indiana and Pershing. Eich
points to an Olds 98 ahead.
      "Cracked windshield," he says. "You want it?"
       Baez directs a spotlight into the car and it pulls over. Baez
and Eich get out of the car and walk over to the Olds. A small man in a
jumpsuit gets out. Windshield cracked? It was a rock. Just happened.
About to fix it. Unconvinced, Eich tickets the driver.
      "The crack was all the way across," says Baez. "It's something that
you can't let get away, at the right speed it could shatter, blinding the 
driver. We've hopefully gotten him to fix a car that could cause a
      A call comes over the radio — youths stripping an auto in a lot
on Wabash — and Car 211 is on its way. Baez guns the squad car — a
Crown Victoria LTD — down State Street, flipping on the sirens only to
blow through stoplights, then shutting them off to avoid tipping off
the culprits. Other police cars join in the chase, radioing their
positions in crackling bursts of numbers and streets.
      Baez cuts down side streets, searching, trying to figure out from
the radio where the suspects would be. The car roars through an alley,
veering around obstacles, bouncing along the potholed surface.
      "I'm actually one of the slower drivers," says Baez, grinning at
a visitor cowering in the backseat. "They call me Slowpoke."
      Five teens are discovered lounging against a car, and Baez and
Eich are out of the squad car in a flash, talking to them. No, they
haven't seen anybody. In fact, they were the ones who called police.
The policemen are smiling and joking with the teens. Baez places what
appears to be a friendly hand on the back of one teen and tells them to
be careful.
      "I was checking to see if their hearts were beating like
trip-hammers," he says later. "They have to be if they came from over
      No car-stripping suspects are found, but now Baez is alerted to a
van creeping along with a couple flat tires. He tries to run down the
van's license-plate number through the team's mobile computer, but a
message is coming across.
      "I would like to take this time out to wish every officer a
merry, merry, merry Christmas," the computer says, in glowing orange
letters. Baez turns the computer's screen so his partner can see the
     The pair talk about how they approach patrol on this holiday
night. "Early in the shift, I'm looking for movers, at the same time
listening to the radio, listening for something nearby," says Baez.
"You don't become complacent because there's so much going on."
     "If anything, on Christmas, we'll get more domestics," says Eich.
"Somebody who wants the drumstick, or isn't getting to watch their
movie on the VCR."
     A call comes over the radio about an armed robbery, eliciting a
wry expression from Eich. "Don't they know it's Christmas Eve? That
they ain't supposed to be sticking people up?" says Eich, who makes a
running commentary on the calls coming over the radio.
     They aren't needed at the armed robbery call, but head over to a
three-vehicle accident with injuries.
      The smell of gasoline hangs in the air at the corner of Root and
State, and cubes of broken glass litter the intersection. A green Fury,
its back end smashed, is pushed onto the sidewalk. Two women lay
on the ground nearby, curled up and moaning. Across the street, a 
blue Montego, its front end crumpled and windshield shattered, is on
the opposite sidewalk. Fire Department paramedics work on a man on
the ground, while four children, seemingly unharmed in the backseat,
are led to an ambulance.
       A crowd of onlookers gathers. Sgt. Mary Rozell is in charge of
the scene, and sends Car 211 to close off one end of the street. She is
busy directing victims to ambulances and ambulances to hospitals, but
finds time to reflect on working this holiday.
      "It's not another day — it's Christmas Eve," she says. "But I'm
not married, and we've got a union contract."
    With the ambulances on their way to the hospitals and the gasoline
hosed off the street, Baez and Eich are released from their
street-blocking duty. They decide to call in a request for "lunch."
     The meal request turns them into detectives of sort, as they try
to find a restaurant open on Christmas Eve. A pizza parlor and a
Mexican eatery are closed, but the Bridgeport Restaurant is open.
     Eich uses the lunch break to phone his sister's house, where his
wife and three daughters, ages 9, 5 and 6 weeks, are celebrating
     "They're opening up their presents," he says, returning. "Santa
Claus has been there. This is the first time I missed it in a long
time." He crumbles crackers into his soup. "They always put up a pretty
nice shindig," he says, a little wistfully.
     Baez, also married, has three sons, ages 12, 8 and 5.
      "They're tickled pink daddy's a policeman," he says. "My wife...
my wife experiences her anxieties. But she tries to keep them to
herself, and she knows that I will do my best not to get hurt."
      More policemen come into the restaurant, talking about the
accident and about a drunk who accused his girlfriend, who also was
intoxicated, of stealing money. An officer recounts how the girlfriend,
to prove she wasn't hiding the money, had started stripping. With the
help of police, the money was found inside a drawer.
      "Only on Christmas Eve," the officer says. "They all come out of
the woodwork."
      No sooner are Eich and Baez back in Car 211 than a call of
criminal damage to property comes in.
      "That could be almost anything," says Baez, explaining that the
severity of a crime can't be determined always by its code number.
      The criminal-damage call is minor — a low-rise with a window
broken three hours earlier. The police report is needed to get the
window repaired by the CHA.
     With an hour left in the shift, the pair stops on Oakwood to do
     A few minutes later a call comes through of an overdose at an
address on Indiana Avenue. Car 211 responds.
      The address is a three-story apartment building. The stairway is
painted bright blue. A door on the second landing is ajar, and Baez
eyes it carefully as he goes past. Two doors are at the third landing.
Eich raps on one with his long flashlight. A voice comes from inside.
     "Police," Eich says. There is a pause and sounds of confusion from
inside. Eich raps again, harder.
     A woman lets him in. Inside, what had once been one rental unit
has been divided into many tiny apartments, all the walls painted the
same bright blue as the stairway.
      In one room they find two brothers, Reginald, 22, and Willie, 26.
Reginald is suspected of having overdosed. He sits swaying on a spindly
metal chair, his eyes half shut. The kitchen is garishly lit by a single bulb,
and roaches crawl up the bright blue walls. On the kitchen table are two
40-ounce bottles of beer, a dirty mixing bowl, a paper bag, a package
of rolling papers and a canister of salt.
     Willie explains that the two began drinking at 9 a.m., but he
didn't know his brother had taken any pills. He also says that Reginald
has tried to kill himself twice before, and that he suspects this is a
third attempt.
      A surreal dance begins between Willie, Reginald, Baez and Eich as the
policemen try to get Reginald to his feet, keep him awake and get 
information from him.
      Eich asks Reginald what he has taken, and Reginald says,
"Penicillin." At the suggestion of Baez, Willie hoists his brother over
to the kitchen sink and, with one arm wrapped around Reginald's chest,
begins awkwardly slapping water into his face.
      Soon, Reginald's shirt is soaked, but his head still rolls from
side to side. Willie starts slapping Reginald, who takes several hard
slaps across the face before he realizes that something is happening.
He pushes Willie away and starts to go after him, cursing and swinging.
Baez restrains him from hitting Willie, while egging him on to be angry
and awake, and Eich radios for an ambulance.
      "You didn't care about me alive, why should you care about me
dead?" Reginald shouts. He slumps to the floor, and is jerked to his
     The paramedics finally arrive. "Come on, you're walking," says
paramedic Scott Peters. "I'm not carrying you downstairs."
     A paramedic and Baez walk Reginald downstairs. "Christmas is the
busiest time of the year," says Peters, on the stairs. "We've had 18,
19 runs so far today."
      In the ambulance, Reginald is hooked up to heart monitors, given
oxygen and restrained. Willie hangs around a while, talking to his
brother through the ambulance door.
      "Don't come back here no more," says Willie, who then turns to
Baez. "He needs some mental help. Lock his butt up. He can't come by my
house no more, un uhh."
      Car 211 follows the ambulance to Providence Hospital. The
overdose has been upgraded to an attempted suicide. At the hospital,
another District 2 squad car is bringing in an aggravated-assault
victim, a man whose white T-shirt is caked with dried blood. At 10:55,
they are doing the paperwork on the suspected attempted suicide when
the man with the bloodstained shirt slips his restraints and starts to
crawl away down the hall, babbling. Baez and Eich rush over, with a
clutch of doctors and paramedics, to help that victim back into his bed
and strap him down.
     "It was a reasonably quiet night," says Baez, on the way back to
the station. "Almost zero `man with a gun' calls — maybe two or three."
      A minute or two after 11 p.m., Car 211 pulls up behind a blue
Gremlin with no brake lights or taillights. "Nada, no lights," says
Baez. Eich points out the time — their shift is over — and Car 211
takes a pass on the Gremlin and turns into the station.
      "At least the front lights are working," says Baez, checking the
rearview mirror. "He just got his Christmas present."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 29, 1986


  1. never read this before, neil. in 1986, i was living in winston-salem NC and missing chicago desperately.
    it's too bad there's so little room in today's newspapers for this kind of writing, but i guess that's what the internet is for now.
    anyway, thanks for another year of thought-provoking pieces, and happy holidays to all the steinbergs (take THAT, bill o'reilly!).

  2. That was quite an interesting and descriptive piece. It certainly didn't read like a "reasonably quiet night" to me, more like a night fraught with danger and life-changing events. The anguished remark shouted by Reginald (to his brother, I gather) made an impression ("You didn't care about me alive, why should you care about me dead?")

  3. Wish this was in the paper today, including the intro. Might persuade a few cops that critics aren't necessarily haters.


  4. Doubtful. I don't see them as assessing the daily news and then forming their opinions. Like most, they cling to their biases, then cherry pick the information that validates what they already believe.

  5. Yes. Of course, you're right. And it seems that the internet is making that easier. No matter how outré your ideas there's a group on line to echo them back to you.

  6. Nice piece. This genre has been replaced by videos driving an agenda - cops are heroes or villains. This allows them some humanity and that’s rarely on anyone’s agenda.


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