ON THE STREET WITH A POLICE TACTICAL TEAM

CHICAGO / AUGUST 1982

A slow evening shift in the East Chicago Avenue Police District suddenly picks up when 1861-Adam, one of four police tactical teams working tonight, gets a radio call to meet 1889, a policeman walking his beat on Rush Street near the Sweetwater Restaurant. The policeman, young and breathless, has just come upon a 1969 Buick Electra 225 with no license plates parked in a tow-away zone. The car isn't locked; under a bulge in the matting on the driver's side, the policeman has discovered a loaded Walther PPK/S automatic, the same kind of gun that James Bond carries. Carrying a gun in Illinois, on your person or in your car, is usually illegal even for Bond.
Officers Michael Fitzgerald (left) and Edmund Pyrcioch cautiously search the street outside the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project after being called there after three young men were wounded for a fancied insult to the Disciples street gang.
©1997 Archie Lieberman

"I thought you guys might like to sit on the car until its owner shows up," the policeman suggests. The two plainclothes officers who constitute 1861-Adam nod their heads enthusiastically. One of them unloads the gun, puts the shells into his pocket, and returns the weapon to its hiding place. Then they begin their vigil, one of them lounging beside the decorative fountain across the street, the other waiting in an unmarked police car half a block down Rush.

"Tac" teams, as they are known, have their origins in the police reforms of the 1960s, when detectives were permanently removed from district stations and centralized in the six area headquarters. This left a gap. In the case of the gun in the car, for example, it is impossible for the policeman who found it to wait around until the driver shows up. For one thing, the officer is in uniform and quite conspicuous. For another, he cannot leave his beat uncovered. On the other hand, tac team members have nothing but time, and they do not attract attention in their blue jeans and working man's jackets.

Each of the 25 police districts has a tac unit consisting of 24 plainclothes officers, three sergeants, and a lieutenant. The East Chicago Avenue District, because of its special problems, reinforces its tac unit with seven officers assigned to vice (mainly prostitution), three assigned to special investigations, and 20 uniformed officers who walk beats on Michigan Avenue and Rush Street. Each morning Lieutenant Walter A. Conrad, Jr., the tac unit's commander, anallyzes the previous day's crimes, even before the computers at Police Headquarters can get around to it. "Maybe there were three, four daylight burglaries on Bissell Street," says the lieutenant. "That's what we call a pattern. I'll assign some of my men to roam the alleys to see if they can catch the burglars at work. Or maybe bike thefts have increased sharply in Lincoln Park. My men, dressed in cutoffs, will pedal around on bikes, parking them frequently and waiting to see if anyone tries to take them."

The two men assigned to 1861-Adam are among Conrad's most experienced and, like most tac officers, aggressive street cops. Edmund Pyrcioch, 35, who joined the force at age 20 shortly after his graduation from Wright Junior College, has amassed some 100 commendations. He has shot four men in the line of duty, killing one of them. That man had been standing at the window of a house on North Racine Avenue firing a gun at kids in the street. A six-footer who keeps his weight at 185 pounds by lifting weights at the police gym three times a week, Pyrcioch fills his nylon jacket. The evening is warm, but he needs the jacket to conceal the gun, radio, and handcuffs he must wear on his belt.

Ed's partner for the past two years, Michael Fitzgerald, age 39, who is watching the scene from the parked police car, has received nearly 300 commendations, an incredible number, in his 12 years on the force. Even though he is only five feet seven inches tall, Mike was a high-school football and track star at St. Mel's and currently plays outfield on his police district softball team; he has the odd, catlike walk of a professional boxer.

Mike has been shot at half a dozen times. Two years ago Mike and Ed flanked a man walking down Cambridge Avenue who kept firing a pistol into the air. "Halt, police!" Mike shouted. The man turned the gun on Mike, who promptly dived for the ground, firing his own gun as he fell, wounding the man in the leg. Ed and Mike have a well-honed sense of survival, but in their line of work, injuries are inevitable. Ed has suffered a broken hand, thumb, and two fingers as well as two slashings on his hand, a cut on his left side and a cut on his hand; Mike has suffered assorted bruises and fat lips as well as an eight-stitch slash on his left knee.

Stakeouts are usually boring. Tonight's is no exception, even though there are the Rush Street revelers to look over. "I remember a stakeout once," Ed tells me as I stand with him at the fountain, "where we were hiding in an undercover van. We were waiting for a group of purse snatchers to hit on women passing on the sidewalk. Nothing happened. It was boring--just like this. Then suddenly one of the purse snatchers turned to the back of our van and--I couldn't believe it!-started to pry the door open. I opened the door, pulled the man in, handcuffed him, and charged him with breaking into our van."

Tonight's stakeout ends suddenly with the arrival of two young men who get into the illegally parked car. Ed and Mike swoop down on them. "Police officers!" Ed calls as he flourishes a heavy-gauge, 12-inch-long black steel flashlight, though neither he nor Mike is spoiling for a fight. The driver of the car, a south suburban construction worker, is a muscular man at least four inches above six feet. There is no point in riling him, so they don't tell him they found the gun. The man insists, in any event, that the car is not his; it is borrowed. He says that he and his younger brother were having a drink across from Sweetwater.

The tac team's unmarked car is one of four district cars equipped with a computer terminal. Quickly, Mike enters the car's vehicle identification number in the FBI and state police computers; it belongs to a man in Des Plaines and has not been reported stolen.

Mike enters the names of the construction worker and his brother into the computer-neither is wanted by police. "We'll clear this up at the station," Mike says diplomatically, calling for a patrol wagon on his radio.

At the police station Mike and Ed produce the James Bond pistol. The construction worker denies ever having seen it before. "It's not my car," he insists. He seems vague as to whose car it is.

"But who has possession?" Ed asks.

"You do!" the man answers.

Ed laughs. "You're not going to make me take the pinch for you," he retorts. The man is charged with unlawful use of a weapon and with not having a gun owner's state registration card. For a moment, Mike and Ed consider charging the brother with disorderly conduct, a minor catchall charge, but he is pleasant enough; so they drive him back to the car on Rush Street so that he can raise the $100 bond for his brother.

Soon 1861-Adam has another prisoner. Patrolling a dark stretch of railroad tracks north of the East Bank Club where the racquetball set park their cars, Mike spots a furtive figure near some empty truck trailers. But by the time he can turn the car around, the man, dressed in an army shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, and a blue stocking cap, has disappeared.

Mike climbs into one of the trailers. "Damn it!" he says, producing two new-looking car batteries, probably stolen from the nearby parked cars. "Damn it!" he says again; some of the battery acid has spilled on his shirt. "I've ruined 40, 50 pairs of pants and maybe three dozen shirts on this job," he says ruefully.

The battery thief, if he is one, hasn't gone far. Flashing their hand lights, Mike and Ed search three ancient Milwaukee Road passenger cars that somebody has bought with the forlorn notion of converting them into a restaurant. The alleged thief is found hiding in one of them. At the police station the man, who says he is unemployed, denies taking the batteries. "They're worth only a dollar apiece as scrap," he says, "whether or not they work." It seems he used to work for a wholesale battery dealer--a strange coincidence. Mike and Ed charge him with disorderly conduct and walk him down to the lockup. In court tomorrow he will be discharged for want of prosecution. But Mike and Ed want him to know they're keeping an eye on him.

Back in their car, Mike, who's driving, calls out the license numbers of passing cars that look suspicious; Ed puts them into the computer. "Five-six-eight-eight," Mike calls. rap-tap-tap. "Clear!" Ed responds. Not much on the street misses Mike's scrutiny. "You let your eyes scan constantly from right to left," he tells me. "You don't use tunnel vision or you miss what's going on."

At Cabrini-Green, the giant Chicago housing Authority project where Mayor Jane Byrne lived for a while to call attention to conditions there, Mike notices shadowy figures in a car parked on Cleveland. Cautiously, the officers approach the car and ask the four youngish black men inside to step into the street. They search them. The men have been passing around a bottle of bourbon and talking. The pat-down reveals no weapons, and their names are not in the computers. They seem unresentful as Mike jokes with them and thanks them for their cooperation.

"Hey, I'm glad you're out here," replies one of the men. "There are a lot of juvenile delinquents around here; they stand on the corner and ask for change. Times are hard, and pretty soon there'll be no change. Then they'll start ripping us off."

Entering one of the CHA buildings, Mike and Ed don't seem to notice the mixed odor of Lysol and urine that pervades the stairwell as they climb up. Graffiti are everywhere: the six-pointed star of the Disciples street gang and the pyramid with an eye on its side of the Cobra Stones--ancient enemies.

"We'll wait here in the dark for the gangbangers [rival gang warriors]," says Ed, drawing his .41 Magnum on the eighth floor. They don't expect us to hide here, those stairwell rats. Maybe they'll try to rip somebody off."

While we wait, Mike tells combat stories about Cabrini-Green: Last year we got a radio call of shots fired at Division and Larrabee. When we pulled up, someone on the 12th floor began firing at us. We called for help and the entire tac team responded. We could see the flash of a gun as several figures ran up the stairway, taking time every now and then to fire at us." (Eleven years earlier, snipers had shot and killed two policemen on a street below.)

Mike and Ed had huffed all the way up to the 15th floor, lugging a heavy sledgehammer that they had borrowed from the Cabrini-Green firehouse. "We smashed in the door of the apartment where the shooters had hidden," Mike continued. "Do you believe it, there was nobody inside! They had crawled out the window onto a three-inch ledge and made their way to the next apartment ten feet away. But we did apprehend them."

No gang members show up this night, but Mike and Ed will return to this building sooner than they expect. Early the next evening, a block away from the police station, they have just finished munching hamburgers at the G & W Grill (a wall sign proclaims: "WHERE THE POLICE AND OTHER FOOLS MEET TO EAT") when the radios at their belts suddenly blare: "Eighteen twenty-three and cars on the city-wide, two men shot at 1157 North Cleveland."

"Let's go," says Mike, making an illegal U-turn and flipping on the special switch that makes his headlights flash alternately on their low and high beams; the car has no Mars light. The ride is quick and the scene is chaos. Three young men, 15, 16, and 20, have been gunned down by a Disciple avenging an "insult" by a Cobra Stone who had snatched off the hat of another Disciple.

The Disciple had shown up a few minutes before as the usual evening crowd of young men gathered outside the CHA buildings. He pulled out a pistol and, shouting his gang slogan of "D love," began firing at random into the crowd. One youth is wounded in the left leg and buttock, another in the left forearm and right buttock, another in the left foot. Only luck has kept this from being a massacre.

Fire ambulance 42 begins carrying away the wounded as Mike and Ed survey the confusing scene. It makes a surprising lot of sense to them. The 16-year-old, for example, they know as the son of a woman they talked to only yesterday; Mike had arrested the boy for theft a year ago and previously arrested his uncle, who was sent to prison for murder. A frightened-looking youth sidles up to Mike and whispers urgently. He is giving him the name of the young man who did the shooting. Normally the code of silence would prohibit anyone from snitching to "The Man," but this shooting is so outrageous that nearly everyone at Cabrini-Green is angry.

Pulling out his radio, Mike broadcasts a lookout message for the gang member, whom he describes as wearing a gray jacket and a baseball cap, and then he goes to Henrotin Hospital with Ed to talk to the 16-year-old. They don't get much from him; he's playing it tough. They return to their car to look for the gang member. Ed slams on the brakes as they pass a husky youth in his early 20s. "It's V-," says Mike. "He's high up in the Disciples." They search him.

"I don't know anything about any shooting," V- alibis. "I'm just coming home from my mama and little brother."

Reluctantly, Mike gets back into the car. "I knew V- when he was 17," Mike says. "He crushed a kid's head with a brick, the kid was paralyzed and two years later he died. V- did a year in prison after copping a plea for battery. I'm sure he's killed four people."

The tac sergeant working this evening has warned Mike and Ed that there has been a resurgence in thefts from autos, ten of them in the district yesterday. Sometimes when this happens, Mike and Ed will throw a useless TV set that still looks good into the back of an unlocked car and wait around to see what happens.

This evening they take another tack, following three teen-agers who have brought suspicion on themselves by peering into parked cars. Ed follows them on foot; across the street; Mike trails in the car half a block behind. The surveillance lasts for 45 minutes and Ed, getting tired, trades places with Mike. Mike promptly disappears; turning up on his radio a few minutes later at State and Division. "They went into a game room," he says disappointedly. "That's the way it goes."

In Lincoln Park, cruising along Stockton Drive, they have no better luck as they scan the many parked cars; this street is practically a supermarket for auto thieves. The hour is late: It's 1:18 a.m., and suddenly 1861-Adam's luck changes. As they pass the zoo Mike and Ed notice that a food truck is parked in the zoo commissary driveway. This is not unusual, but the darkened Checker cab parked next to it is definitely unusual. Is the cab stolen? Are its occupants ripping off food that is stored in the zoo truck?

Turning off the police car's lights, 1861-Adam sneaks up on the parked taxi. A prosperous-looking gray-haired white man is sitting in the back with a plain-looking black woman dressed in a beige acrylic pantsuit. The cab driver, young and beaded, shields his eyes from Ed's probing flashlight. The male passengers trousers are open and so are the taxi driver's. The woman is completely clothed. Impassive, she's used to trouble.

"OK, just what the hell is going on here?" Ed demands.

"Will this get into the papers in Omaha?" the rnale passenger asks in a pleading tone.

"The newspapers?" Ed asks. "Whatever for?"

The story emerges. The passenger is a Nebraska businessman who is staying at the Drake Hotel. "I went drinking on Rush Street and then hailed this taxi," the man says. "I asked the driver to get me a girl. He picked this woman up a block later and drove us here. I told the driver I would cut him in on the sex. Two for the price of one." His hands shake as he pulls a driver's license out of a wallet thick with money and credit cards. Ed puts his name into the computer and then puts the woman's name in. They come back: "Clear LEADS" (the state police) and "Clear NCIC" (the FBI). The cab driver isn't so lucky. There are two warrants out for him: for ignoring a court appearance for driving on the sidewalk and for disorderly conduct for arguing with a policeman in connection with the traffic offense. If he doesn't have $200, ten percent of the two $1,000 bonds set for his offenses--he must go to jail. The driver counts his money. There isn't enough. It'll be jail.

"You can go," Mike tells the businessman and his female companion. "The only reason we bothered you was that it looked as if there might be a burglary in progress."

The businessman asks where they can hail a taxi. Mike points across the parkway toward Clark Street. Silently, the man and the woman walk off together in the dark. Ed gets behind the taxi's steering wheel to drive to the police station; Mike follows in the unmarked police car with the taxi driver beside him. They have barely gotten onto Stockton Drive when a suspicious pair of policemen halt the cab. They don't like Ed's looks. "It's all right, officers," Mike tells them. "I stopped him already." Tac team 1861Adam, temporarily split up, makes its way back to the East Chicago Avenue police station and the end of another night