What Scares Cops?

28

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”

–Mark Twain

What scares cops? I mean what really scares cops?

I guess a good general answer is: Not much.

If we want to be more specific, the answer becomes murky, more complicated. In reviewing this story in my mind before setting this account to the printed page, I think a good answer that most police officers would agree with is “the unknown.” Tactics can be taught in the academy and honed on the street with years of experience, but no matter the breadth of training and experience there come the incidents that have no safe, tactically defined approach. You master your fear, tough it out and do what you have to do.

It was a late summer evening, cool enough for a light jacket, especially after the sun had set. Mike and I were working homicide, driving west on Madison Street in the 3800 block. About 25 yards ahead of us a young man came darting out of a gangway, looking over his shoulder,  running from right to left into traffic. He reached the traffic lane directly in front of us when a very loud shot rang out from the gangway. He went face down, rolled onto his back, staring at the gangway as he tried to use his legs to push himself further away to no avail. He lost consciousness almost immediately.

Mike picked up the microphone and shouted.

“Seventy-four–o-seven. Emergency! We have an on view shots fired, man shot on the street at 3830 West Madison.”

I eased our car closer to the victim but remained about 10 yards back from the gangway. I put the car in park, positioning it to shield the victim from traffic. We paused for a moment to hear if our dispatcher had read our message. He did.

“Attention cars on City-Wide, we have a homicide unit with shots fired on the street and a man shot at 3830 West Madison.”

This was the 011th District and we knew that in a matter of seconds City-Wide units would be on the scene with District units close behind, delayed only by the time it took their dispatcher to relay the call. We approached the victim slowly with our revolvers drawn, all the while glancing warily at the dark gangway to our right. The victim appeared to be unarmed and unconscious. A Task Force unit arrived with siren wailing from the opposite direction and positioned their car to shelter the victim from the west.

“Call an ambulance,” we shouted as we headed to the gangway.

“You guys got a description?” they called to us.

“Negative—the shot came from the gangway.”

We got to the mouth of a narrow gangway, not more than four feet wide, lined with solid brick walls on both sides for the entire length. No cover, no concealment. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air as we peered down the dim length of the now empty passageway. Mike and I slowly crept towards the rear, revolvers drawn, sitting ducks for anyone who might suddenly reappear at the far end. It seemed a hundred yards long when in reality it was probably no more than a hundred feet.  These are the moments when cops hear their own heartbeat. After an eternity the rear opened onto a narrow lot occupied by a small construction office trailer. The lights were on and the door was ajar. We approached, again very slowly, remaining on the ground level as we gently pushed the door at the top of two stairs. An older black gentleman had his back to us as he carefully hung a shotgun on the far wall. We waited until he turned towards us, empty handed.

“Police! Keep your hands where we can see them.”

“I’m okay, I ain’t did nothin’.” He looked harmless… even kindly as he responded. Maybe he was threatened by the gunman also.

Mike spoke first.

“Did you shoot that boy?”

“Yassuh, I capped that niggah’s ass. He kept messing with me. I tole him not to mess with me no mo.”

Moments later we exited the gangway onto the sidewalk. Mike had his hand on the handcuff chain as he walked the prisoner out. I carried the shotgun.

“That was fast!” commented the Task Force unit.

“Ya, we don’t fuck around,” I answered with a smart ass air of confidence and just a bit of swagger.

The scene out front had changed dramatically since we had entered the gangway. Marked squads were curb to curb. Paramedics had cut away the teenager’s pant leg and were applying a dressing to the worst area of a buckshot wound. The boy was awake and alert now laying in a puddle of urine. Perhaps he had just fainted from fright.

The distinctive wail of a lone Chicago Police siren heralded the arrival of still another unit. A homicide car pulled into the center of the milieu.

“Didn’t you get the disregard?” I asked as our cohorts from Area Four rolled down their windows.

“Yeah, we were on the south side, but we kept coming because you sounded scared.”

I looked them straight in the eye, searching for a hint of insult or sarcasm but found none. I saw instead an expression of genuine concern that cops will seldom admit to. I diverted my eyes to the pavement before I replied.

“Yeah…

…well…

…maybe that’s ’cause we were scared.”

Showing 28 comments

  • Kent Erickson
    Reply

    Nice job, Jim. Your writing puts the reader right in the gangway behind you and the memories flow back to maybe their own remembrance of a similar walk down a dark gangway… Well, at least a reader who’s had to do that. I wonder how affected a civilian would be who’s never been nor would ever dream of going down that dark alley?

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks for you comments Kent. It sounds like a cliche, but in a very real sense, it’s “what cops do.” It comes with the territory and for many of us, it’s why we became cops, well… maybe not so much. 🙂

  • Ed Hammer
    Reply

    Wow!

    • Phil
      Reply

      Gangways…walking down them at night or in dim light can be scary. In my experiences, walking down the narrow hallways of a “SRO” hotel was also scary. Doors to the left and right 10 ft. apart on a “Man with a gun call!” Which door do you choose? It must have been awfully terrifying for those aboard the early ships that had to walk along another type gang way. The Gangplank! Your story brings back many memories of not the fear, but the unknown! Thanks again Jim!

      • jimpadar
        Reply

        Thanks for you comments Phil. This is a story I have told many times verbally, but I think it works even better on the written page.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks Ed. And thanks for your continuing support of the blog. I really appreciate all you do!

  • Silvia
    Reply

    Once again, thanks for sharing your story and bringing back memories. You paint a picture with words!

  • Mary Rita Shull
    Reply

    Jim, thank you so much for sharing this story.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks Mary Rita. For so much of my career, Mike was at my side. The younger folks have a word for it nowadays: workwife.

  • Hal Ardell
    Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Jim. In a few paragraphs, you have captured the essence of what goes through every Copper’s mind when faced with fear brought on by an imminent threat of danger and uncertainty.

  • Bill Nolan
    Reply

    Jim, you bring back memories of many situations similar to this one while working the good old Area 4. We had fun and we had hair raising nights also, but our clear up rate can not be matched. P.S. All told, glad to be out of there today.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      It was very much an exceptional group of guys. We worked hard and played hard. They were the good ol’ days!

      • Phil
        Reply

        What I find most pleasurable is the “Good New Days.” Meeting the fellows and gals that I worked with in the past, and reliving some of the experiences we had together. What a wonderful feeling to know that these fellow officers came through some of the same life changing events with us, and are still around. Then thoughts of those who weren’t as lucky, who have preceded us to their final resting place. May they all rest in peace!

  • Rich
    Reply

    When things happen really fast we don`t get scared. We quickly react. But slowly and cautiously creeping through that gangway makes the hair on your neck stand up. Nice pinch.

  • Rick Barrett
    Reply

    Great story! I know exactly the feeling when you step into the “kill zone” i.e., the narrow gangway, you described. Nowhere to go but forward with heart thumping. Great job officers! Great story too!

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks Rick, I’m glad you enjoyed the story. You’ve been there so you know.

  • John
    Reply

    When situations like this happen, as my old partner (RIP DD) would say, “You got to suck it up and do your shit.” Those gangways, long hall staiways, and the ever popular “Stick your head in the attick,” all gave us all a “pucker” or two.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      I love your phraseology John. There is no doubt you’ve been there and done that!

  • Matthew Brown
    Reply

    I’d have been scared too! But we do what we do and realize later that we were scared. If you or someone else asked me what scares me about this job….while I’m sitting here at my desk I’d say traffic crashes. Too many years in traffic and MAIU taught me that a traffic crash can hit anyone, anywhere. I look forward to your articles. Keep it up.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Funny you should say that Matt. I have a son working OCD Narcotics. Undercover buys, search warrants, breaking down doors, etc. But when I ask him what scares him most, he says the same thing. Traffic crashes.

      Thanks for reading the blog!

  • DENNIS P. MURPHY
    Reply

    Jim,
    Ususal nice job. Your previous Uncle Rocco column was also very good. My 100% Italian wife especially liked it. She also commented that you don’t look Italian.?? Take care,
    Dennis

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks Dennis. Say hi to Adele and tell her that I am only half Italian, the other half German. Although persons who knew the Italian side swear that I am a cloned image of another, older Uncle Rocco, or as the family referred to him, “the rich Uncle Rocco.” Many of my Italian cousins had red or auburn hair as did I. My wife did buy me a small gold chain to help me prove my heritage. 🙂

  • Chrissy
    Reply

    Amazing …just amazing and you leave me feeling as if I was there…my Dad is Al Ogar and you guys deserve the world…

    Chrissy Tuton

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks for the kind comments Chrissy and my best wishes to your dad.

  • Craig
    Reply

    Amazing story. I unfortunately know that feeling. I was involved in a shooting in ’10 after the offender shot two people in a gangway. After I heard the gun shot and seen the muzzle flash my body went into autopilot. I didn’t realize that I was scared until after it was all over. It still amazes me to see a cop ran towards gun fire.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks, Craig.

      Terry Pratchett, an Englishman once wrote: “It is the ancient instinct of terriers and policemen to chase anything that runs away.”

      So chalk it up to some inborn instinct, it sure as hell isn’t common sense!

  • Big Mike
    Reply

    Jim, I worked the old gang crimes west at the new A/4. West end of Madision always had us humping with shots fired calls in the early 80′
    We used to basically live our whole tour in 011. West Madison and lets not forget Chicago Av. Been shot at more times on Chicago Av like it felt like it was monthly.
    I am pulling the pin soon, but the A/4 dicks were the greatest in the city. Now that A/4 det div. is gone…it is sad.
    We did have a great time working A/4. Fond and scary memories brother. I do not think there are many of the guys left otj from Gangs West and upstairs. Most of us old timers had a great long run.

  • Tommy Gierut
    Reply

    Ahhh… home-sweet-home… 011/A-4. Is’nt life a bonus?!

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