Good judgment comes from experience,
and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
It was December 23rd and Tony and I were working midnights on Beat 1801. Each of us had less than four months on the street, but the department in their infinite wisdom saw fit to pair us as regular partners. Make no mistake, we were sharp—at least we thought so—but woefully inexperienced. We did however have an excellent beat sergeant who shepherded us in an almost fatherly manner, not to mention a field lieutenant who I would later come to recognize as fitting the true definition of the word “mentor.” But that being said, as fine as these two supervisors were, they were certainly not able to be nearby at all times, and in urban law enforcement, situations can turn disastrous in a split second. For Tony and me, it very nearly did so this particular night.
We reported for the 11 PM roll call and by 11:30 we were on the street. In those days, 1801 was probably the largest beat in 018, covering the far northwest corner of the district, roughly North Avenue to Fullerton and the river east to Halsted Street. We started a lazy zigzag pattern, cruising the nearly deserted streets. Aggressive, preventive patrol was the department mantra but the word “aggressive” always seemed to be a non sequitur to me. There was nothing exactly aggressive about leisurely driving the streets and chatting about nothing in particular. At 1:15 AM I was driving slowly northwest on Clybourn toward the triple intersection with Sheffield and Willow where we were stopped by a traffic light.
On the far northwest corner of Willow and Clybourn was Ke-K’s Drive-in, a non-descript sandwich shop on a triangular lot set back from the street with a small parking lot out front. It was just past their closing time and dark except for the glow from the neon light. The proprietor was at the cash register collecting the night’s receipts. I turned on our spotlight and swept it in his direction—just a friendly hello, we’re here gesture. We would be looking for a return wave. My grip on the handle slipped a bit and the light momentarily swept across and then past him. I changed my grip and brought the light back to the cash register. There was nobody there! Tony and I stiffened and leaned forward in unison.
“Did you see him?”
“Yeah, where the hell did he go?”
“Maybe he’s not who we think he is!”
Our pulses quickened as I killed the lights on the squad and coasted silently into the parking lot. It was only then we saw the gaping hole in the broken plate glass window. Tony beat me to the mic.
“Go 1801,” was the dispatcher’s immediate response.
“Yeah, squad, we have an on view burglary in progress in Ke-K’s drive-in, Willow and Clybourn. Offender in the store—we’ll need an assist to cover the building.”
“Attention cars in 18 and on the city-wide, 1801 is calling for an assist… that’s a burglary in progress at Clybourn and Willow.”
Well… we really only needed one or two cars to cover the building while we entered and searched for the burglar, but with that city-wide call we knew Ke-K’s lot would be full in less than two minutes. Tony and I stationed ourselves at opposite corners of the building, but there did not appear to be any other entrance or exit except the front door…and the broken plate glass window. In moments the scene was a madhouse of squads and very shortly Tony and I found ourselves inside the sandwich shop, revolvers drawn, with several other officers.
The cash register drawer was open. The store was small and cramped but there were a lot of nooks and crannies in which to hide. Slowly we cleared them all, save for one. There was a washroom door behind the counter and the door was either jammed or locked from the inside. Tony and I pounded hard on the door.
“Police! Come out and keep your hands where we can see them!”
The restricted area leading to the door made it impossible to stand to the side. Standing directly in front of the door was not a good tactical situation and Tony and I struggled to keep ourselves as much to the side as possible. Was there more than one bad guy? Did they have the owner in there with them? Were they armed? Were they high on drugs? All unanswered questions that only added to the extreme pressure of the moment.
Silence. More pounding.
“Come out a’ there, asshole!”
There were no supervisors on the scene yet, but from behind us came the voice of a senior and more experienced officer we both recognized.
“Put a couple of shots through the door,” he said. “Go ahead, shoot!”
I glanced at the door, at my revolver and then at my rookie partner. He glanced back at me, his rookie partner. I can’t say how long I may have considered the suggestion—perhaps only for a split second, but it was wrong on so many levels. It was a two-bit burglary of a hamburger joint, a forcible felony to be sure, where deadly force might possibly be used. But department policy strictly prohibited shooting through doors. Deadly force was a last resort measure in life or death circumstances. This did not qualify, no matter what we might think… unless something happened to escalate the situation. Tony and I were sharp enough to know all that. Our inexperience and the adrenaline coursing through our veins was fortunately not enough to cloud our judgment in a moment stress. There was a pause for a second or two and then a canine unit pulled to the front door of the building, the dog barking excitedly.
“Nah,” I said loudly. “Let the dogs go in and get him,” intentionally using the plural. Just how the dog could accomplish that through that locked door was unanswered of course.
“No! I’m coming out!” cried a weak scared voice from behind the door.
Dogs were more convincing than bullets?
“Keep your hands in the air where we can see them!”
A scared, slightly built 17 year old stepped out with his hands above his head. He wore a thin, ragged winter coat covering nothing more than a tee-shirt and jeans. He exited without incident, crying and shaking with fright. We cuffed and searched him then turned him over to the wagon men. The young man was about to spend his first Christmas away from home. We never asked him why the dog frightened him more than a couple of shots through the door.
Tony and I talked about the incident at length later. We agreed that the suggestion of the senior and far more experienced officer was completely out of order, even if it was said in jest, or as a bluff for the benefit of the burglar. How could he have possibly known that, in the stress of the moment, we two rookies wouldn’t have thought it to be a reasonable course of action? It could have been career ending for us of course and maybe life ending for the 17 year old. But in that split second, without benefit of discussion or deliberation, we made the correct decision and we survived to serve and protect for several more decades.
The incident turned out to be our first Honorable Mention and a Salute from the Burglary Unit in the Daily Bulletin, even though, for just that instant, it could have become a complete disaster.
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is the name of a play by the great bard, written over 400 years ago. It still rings true today.