Guest Factor: Policing the Windy City
A Chicago cop talks guns, violence, and morale
Measured in raw numbers, Chicago is America’s most violent city. So far this year, over 3,000 people have been shot and over 500 have been murdered. It’s also where “P.O. Potatoes” works as a police officer. Well regarded on Cop Twitter, P.O. Potatoes also runs his own blog. I asked him for an interview after reading his excellent Twitter thread about “violence bias.” My questions are in bold; his answers follow. — Graham
Why did you decide to work for the Chicago Police Department?
I was exposed to police officers at a young age, having grown up in Chicago we had multiple neighbors that were cops. I can recall my one neighbor was our beat officer and would catch stop sign runners and speeders at the end of our block. There were a lot of little kids on the block, and we played baseball and such in the street a lot.
What really sealed the deal was the Police Explorer program I was in. Seeing the relationships the cops had with each other was a part of it. Hearing Superintendent Hillard speaking at First Deputy Superintendent Thomas's funeral hit it home. He spoke with so much respect, admiration, and brotherly love that I could only hope someone could talk about me that way. I respected Hillard, so the effect was profound.
Personally, I don't think I'd have worked in Chicago given the danger and the political environment. We had a difficult political environment but not nearly as many shootings. Why haven't you left?
I'm stubborn, but also because Chicago is a big city, we get paid well. Finding a comparably paying department is hard, if not impossible. Even still, I'd be going from one area to another and face the same problems big cities face with crime, gangs, and drugs.
On top of the financial aspect, I've lived in this city my whole life. I've had friends from just about every neighborhood, and even before being a cop I was in "rough" areas and could still see the beauty the city holds in its uniqueness, architecture, and most importantly its people. After becoming a cop that became even more apparent, especially in regards to the people that call this city home. This is why I have such a deep-seated feeling of being duty-bound to honor the city that I can't completely articulate.
I just know that every interaction I have allows me into someone else's little world, whether that is positive or negative, but I can do something while I'm there to change a course or take corrective action at that moment which can "right the ship" (so to speak) and set them back on a better path. Even if that path is getting them off the streets and into prison.
I'm assuming based on your Twitter thread that you're not black. How, if at all, does that experience of being in the community change when you're the non-black cop in a mostly black neighborhood?
I've noticed that black cops get the most verbal abuse from the community, and by the community I mean the criminal element of it. For me personally, it means I need to do learning on a personal level, which involves challenging myself by reading/listening to things I would normally avoid.
I've read some stuff for classes I'm taking towards a minor in Urban Community Studies that, while I didn't agree with it, it gave me a different perspective. Some of it was victim-mentality stuff, but most was about real people with real lived experiences and real emotions tied to it.
When I was working predominantly black areas I made sure I talked to people. That could be the dope boys on the corner, the old lady who has lived on the street since the 60s, or young kids at block parties. My sergeant in the academy (now DC Snelling) told me that I was behind the 8-ball as a white cop if I ended up in a black neighborhood. It was my responsibility to connect with the people in these areas and not to approach my role as a savior or a conqueror, but as someone to come alongside the people that live there.
While I wasn't always perfect, it did help me when it came to solving issues on a block or gather intel on an area. That would lead to arrests, large narcotics recoveries, weapon recoveries, or added info that we used on search warrants. Plus it gave us a heads up when conflicts would arise between gang factions, or internal conflicts.
Outside of that, I learned a lot of really good people live in some of the worst areas. Hearing how many times they were the first black family on the block and how they got along with their white neighbors. How everyone looked out for each other and took care of each other. Many times things rapidly changed after Doctor King got killed and the riots broke out, which triggered the white flight to the ‘burbs and large corporations that closed up and left the city. It just takes a little more effort to connect with people.
A side effect of this was my ability to police safely increased. Even the criminals knew I was fair and impartial, so when one of their boys that didn't know me or my partner started to act out, they were told to calm down by those that knew me. Or I always knew I had allies and eyes that were keeping tabs on me when things got out of hand or a scene was chaotic.
You mentioned camaraderie in policing being part of the draw of the job. Where I worked I always felt that everybody thought of themselves as cops first and identity (Black, gay, Hispanic, etc.) second. But Chicago is a lot more segregated. Is there a lot of solidarity among CPD officers across racial lines? Or is there something of an internal divide?
Everyone is blue to me, and outside of a few cops, it is just how we view each other. Some of those that don't view things like that are few and far between, and mainly out for personal gain. I've worked with, or been in trainings where they were the instructors, the fringe cops. Cops can immediately tell what they are there for, and many times it is ego reason. To be honest, it is cops like [First Deputy Superintendent] Eric Carter that are in that fringe area.
I recently heard about the situation with Eric Carter at P.O. Ella French's procession and heard audio clips of cops broadcasting "fuck Eric Carter" on the air. I definitely think those cops are right to be angry, but I also perceived that behavior as being indicative of rock-bottom morale in the department to a near-breaking point. Was I right? Where I worked insulting a commander with profanity over the air would have been unheard of, but what Carter did would have been unheard of as well.
The procession to the morgue is for us, the cops. That's where we won't see many of the politicians, we can be less worried about cameras or being recorded saying something off the cuff or politically incorrect, and we can grieve. Tell the shit-talk stories about each other, vent about bosses and politicians and the city, and not be so worried about getting in trouble.
I didn't hear Carter but I did see his actions and was confused. Once I realize what was going on later, and heard him on the videos that officers recorded as a piece of remembrance to reflect back on over the years, I was beyond pissed. Carter is just the embodiment of everything wrong with the dept and city.
Many cops like me do good police work, that's not me tooting my horn, I was trained and worked with some of the best cops on this dept and I learned and applied what I learned. I've put some bad hombres behind bars, and I've made a lot of arrests. To this day other cops call me with questions or looking for advice or wanting to know how to do something. But those like me know we are nothing more than an expense line item on the department's budget, and one that if it were to get crossed out (like Ella French was), the city would rejoice they are saving the hundred grand or so.
I was told by an instructor in a use of force class that it is cheaper for the city to host a line of duty deaths funeral (in fact probably make some money) than it would be to pay out a family in an officer-involved shooting. Even if the shooting is 1000% justified.
So for us, the procession into the ME's office is so we can remind each other that we are more than that. That there really is a brother and sisterhood amongst us. That we matter to each other even if we don't know each other. There were officers that ran home to get their bagpipes and drums, another got on their Honor Guard uniform JUST to walk her body in.
Eric Carter had the audacity to rob us of that, and then pretended like he cared by placing his hand on the ambulance when there were cameras to film and take pictures of him. Many of us got the same message:
"We don't care about you, if anything you’re a major inconvenience and time waste."
I'm still angry about it just thinking about it. And then, in typical Chicago fashion, the mayor's office and the powers that be in HQ try to make it seem like it was no big deal. That it was being blown out of proportion and the blue shirts (nickname for the police officers) are trying to paint a "decorated" cop poorly. I think his actions spoke very loudly about the type of boss, cop, and person he is.
Is your beat one of the more violent ones, less violent ones, or in-between?
I've worked several violent beats when I was on the west side districts. One of those beats was, at times, the most violent in the entire city. Even when I wasn't on those harsher beats, when you work the west side you're still dealing with a lot of violence. Right now I'm not on the west side so while there is an abundance of violence, it's a little less where I work now.
Although I know these things ebb and flow with the weather and other stuff, how often would you go to a “shots fired” call in a normal week? A shooting with an injury? A homicide?
Where I'm at now we get violent encounters at least once a week, whether that is a call of shots fired, a person with a gun, someone stabbed, someone severely beaten, etc.. there's always something still.
Out west it was nearly daily, especially in the summer months. Especially on hot days where we would deal with a lot of overdoses or people dead from an overdose. While the violence is less apparent than a stabbing or shooting, the heroin epidemic is its own form of violence in a lot of communities.
How often do CPD cops come across offenders armed with guns?
If a cop was proactive enough and aggressive enough they could easily get a gun a day. A lot of teams do. I can honestly say that in my career thus far (for context, I have a little over six years on with four of those spent on the west side) I don't think so many people have carried weapons as they do now. Finding guns is the easy part, articulating it so a civilian can understand it has become the issue a lot of us face. It comes down to whether we want to do the extra steps to go find a gun on a traffic stop or street stop. Sometimes it's so egregious that we can't ignore it, but sometimes when the actions are subtle I find myself questioning whether or not that is enough for a search or protective pat-down on a stop.
Then is it worth the reports that I need to complete perfectly if nothing comes of it? Which many times they go to a civilian who reads them and feels we didn't have enough for the stop or interaction or many times other cops that review the reports find fault. That just opens us up to suspensions, interrogations/interviews, and so on.
I know for many of us stretching that extra inch of articulation just isn't worth it. Especially with a lot of people willing to fight us or willing to jump on cops trying to arrest someone.
A lot of cops probably know what you mean when you talk about articulation, but for the non-cops who read this, what are you looking for when you're trying to figure out whether someone has a gun? What are the things you learn to see that someone else doesn't?
A lot of factors play into that. Having knowledge of a person's background, the area, current conflicts, the types of drug sales or lack thereof, body language, nervous actions like scratching or wringing of hands, sweating, clothing....the list is pretty exhaustive.
We used to be able to say a suspect appeared nervous, or exhibited signs of an armed person, and that was good enough. Now we need to describe that in detail, like sweat profusely when they hadn't exerted themselves, wearing heavy clothing for the weather we were experiencing, elevated heart rate, looking about as they were speaking to us, giving blow-off answers to simple questions, pockets swinging against their stride, pockets pulling with heavy items, how they are holding a bag against their body, how their hands are situated in their waistband, and on and on.
The issue many of us feel about our stops is if a camera of some sort didn't catch it, it didn't happen. Or even if it did, someone with no police experience (defense lawyer for instance) will say that isn't what they see or thought was going on. And when there isn't a gun, and there is an innocent explanation, then we are opened up to complaints and lawsuits. I lucked out and when I exited the academy — I was able to work with experienced officers and I was able to make innocent mistakes (or bad stops if you want to call them that) where I could work out my expectations on a stop and learn to verify or dispel them.
Many [field training officers] and experienced officers won't do things like that because they don't want to open themselves up to litigation when the stop dispels a suspicion that a person was armed. I don't even like to do them now and I can articulate them with ease. I stop a person, and chances are based on crime stats in Chicago they will be a young black male, I'll immediately have a crowd, people asking for my info, others recording, others trying to interfere, and all this takes place when there isn't a weapon found on them. I've been in several viral videos and suddenly I'm the bad guy for doing my job. For many like me, it is just easier to drive away or wait till there is an incident where a gun was used with a good description, or until I actually see the gun.
It's still hard not to see someone possibly armed in a crowd or by themselves. Someone sees someone walking down the street with friends. I see someone looking back at our car, immediately moves a hand to their waistband where they hike up their pants and then hold something in a downward pistol grip, then their pace picks up and they begin to filter thru the crowd and try to put other people's bodies between us and them, and then they change directions suddenly. All these can be articulated into a stop, but what if it is a kid looking for attention and knows how to act?
Suddenly I'm stopping a 14-year old that is 250 lbs and six feet tall thinking he has a gun and he was just acting a fool when he saw us. It comes down to how sure am I and do I want to deal with the blowback if I'm wrong?
You mentioned other cops might file a complaint if you don't have a good enough explanation for a search that doesn't find a gun. How often do supervisors or other cops file complaints against other officers? Where I worked it happened all the time, in fact, most of our complaints were internal.
It's usually internal, we have [investigative stop report] review units and other ones that will review our reports and determine if there was enough there for the stop. When there isn't, an email will come down the chain of command and we get told we need to do XYZ next time in the report. That can be the need to articulate more, or the reason for a stop or search wasn't warranted based on the info we reported, or that we need remedial training. My understanding is that gets attached to an officer's file and if there is enough there then you are forced into retraining.
That just means a new cop who is trying to apply and learn cannot do so without repercussions. A white cop in a black neighborhood suddenly has 99% of their stop reports involving black citizens, which makes sense for the area. However, civilians and the media see a racist white cop who only harasses black people. For someone like me, if someone is black nowadays there is a better chance I'll just avoid the interaction to dodge any possible misinterpretation of the interaction versus engaging in it.
How many people do you personally know in the department who have been shot or shot at by criminals?
At least 20 just counting off the top of my head, myself included (being shot at that is). Many of those, again myself included, weren't able to get a shot off back at the offenders due to not having a target or there being a crowd, and shooting back would potentially injure innocent civilians. And many of those offenders fled and were never caught. Most of the random shots being fired at cops have been more recent, mainly happening in the last 18 months.
Chicago is ground zero for a lot of gang culture — where I worked our gangsters were descended from Chicago gangs. How organized are the gangs on the west side? Do they organize the violence against cops, or is it mostly random?
Most of the violence towards us is from either super young individuals who don't understand the consequences of their actions, or older ones who have been to prison and don't want to get back. The day I got shot at I was on a traffic stop and just happen to be downrange from a known gangbanger who we believe was their target. Doesn't change the fact bullets were zipping over our heads and ricocheting off the ground and cars around us.
We in Chicago haven't experienced the ambushes like other areas of the nation have. Most of the time it is a reaction to us or the situation they've put themselves in. Obviously, things like Officer Jimenez's death at Mercy Hospital don't count, but I think most criminals know that if they comply, or just run, they will make it out alive. So the violence isn't directed at us, but there are plenty of violent outcomes.
The gangs themselves are fractured and splintered off from much larger ones. They have sets and cliques that involve a block or two. They may have an alliance or allegiance to a larger controlling faction or gang, but that is usually for the flow of drugs or guns, or manpower for when a larger conflict erupts. Many times the sets are names after a dead homie or one of the OGs that is in prison or killed.
How do you think seeing so much violence and being targeted by violence affects officers psychologically? Are there mental health resources available?
I know for me there is always the images in my head that will remain. Every cop knows "the scream" on a homicide scene. The panicked run of a parent towards crime scene tape or the hospital door. The smell of a fresh dead body mixed with gun powder, how blood reacts depending upon the weather. Most cops who have been shot, shot at, or in a shooting don't like to talk about it, or when they do it's very factual and not in regards to how they feel. Or when they do talk, me for example, most non-cop or non-first responders don't understand the excitement or sort of enthusiasm, we can express about the incident. Most people experience a traffic crash or nearly getting into a crash, and that is the biggest adrenaline dump most will experience, and that's a rare occurrence, but for cops we can easily recall the traumatic situations as if it happened only yesterday.
As for mental health care, we have our [employee assistance program] and some cops use it. I personally don't trust the department’s EAP program and seek out my therapy through outside practices. I'm a big proponent of mental health and therapy services for us, and encourage other cops to seek out help. Many still push back against seeking out help, and I think that is a big reason we face a higher rate of suicide and other issues like substance abuse and divorce.
I've read a lot about CPD being forced to work 12-hour shifts. How is the staffing situation? Is taking time off a realistic option? Does that length of shift negatively affect cops' well-being and performance?
Long-term it does, with these pet project units and such that draw so much manpower from the districts. I'm on a tact team and while the teams are pretty full, the watch is so strapped that we get sent to calls like domestic disturbances, parking violations, and so on. Not that any of that is beneath us, and we realize the part we play here in regards to manpower issues, but it does limit us from doing more proactive work.
The sergeants and lieutenants try their best to accommodate us and taking time off, but many times it isn't realistic. Especially around holiday weekends. For instance, with Labor Day approaching if I wanted to take the Friday off beforehand to celebrate my kid's birthday, I would need to complete a written to-from report asking for the day off to a deputy chief or higher. Many times unless an event is paid for (like a house rental or proof of airfare for instance) we won't be able to get the time off. Even when we submit our request with enough time, our word means little when it comes to staffing issues. I could ask for that day, explain it is for personal reason XYZ, and not get the day off because there is no proof of my reason.
Few do this because it takes money out of our pockets, but I've known POs to submit a form for a day of no pay to get a day off. But if you piss off the wrong boss there can be retaliation for it such as being kicked off a beat car, or a start time, or a team. Or you can have a brick put on you, which means movement in the department is hard to do unless it is a position that requires a seniority bid. While rare for time off, it is something that floats around the back of every cop’s head when they do something stubborn like that.
Even this interview could screw me over. Enough cops know who I am, and I'd imagine a few would disagree with me in a lot of what I've said, I could get dragged down to internal affairs for conduct unbecoming or making the department look bad.
While P.O. Potatoes is an active Chicago Police officer, the views expressed here are only his own and do not reflect those of the Chicago Police Department, the City of Chicago, or any other government agency.
If you’re a current or former police officer and are interested in writing for the Graham Factor or participating in an interview like this one, I want to hear from you. Email me at GrahamFactor@Substack.com. — Graham