Our Job: A Magic Show

The gold old days. Michael Keady, the author (right), with his long time friend Tommy O’Meara.
The gold old days. Michael Keady, the author (right), with his long time friend Tommy O’Meara.

For younger cops the job can be a dream come true. For older officers, it’s more complicated

by Michael Keady, Northbrook, Illinois PD 

Everyone loves the carnival, grownups and kids alike.  The rides are exciting, the shows colorful, and the music, blaring.  The clinking of baseballs knocking over milk cans competes with the thud and clang of the strongman’s bell when the hammer hits.  The best part though, the heart of the carnival, is the Magic Show.

The Chicago Police Department is the dream job for many young police officers.  At times, it turns into a nightmare for older officers. In big cities, an endless parade of violent crimes and vicious criminals quickly satisfies the appetites of young, eager crime fighters.  This onslaught, this incomprehensible glut of felons and felonies quickly gives the young officer his fill of thrills, chills, and adrenalin.  Policemen agree that 5 years on the Chicago Police Department is like 20 years on a smaller department.

As an officer ages, priorities change, and fighting crime takes a back seat to marriage, children, and household responsibilities.  As my friend Officer Tommy O’Meara put it, “You get tired of wrestling duh drunks in duh street.  Dares always fights, every night, and dis is duh third pair of uniform pants I ripped dis month.”  His strong Chicago accent made him sound like a weary prizefighter as he struggled to breathe through his oft broken nose.

Many older officers seek “inside” jobs, as clerks or detectives, or evidence technicians, just to get out of the patrolman’s grind.  Most uniformed officers work 6 days and take off two, and change shifts every 28 days.  This schedule spreads out the pain, so no officer has too many midnight shifts or too many working weekends.  The constant change in the Patrol Division wreaks havoc on their bodies.  All too often, officers die before their retirement of heart disease, alcoholism, poor diet, or stress.

At 32, Tommy O’Meara was burning out quickly.  After two divorces, he had been to alcohol rehab, and he was rumored to be dabbling in drugs to help him through.  He was partying in his district, contrary to the “Don’t shit where you eat” nostrum.  To his friends, it seemed he was living too close to the edge, entering a career-ending (and possibly life-ending) death spiral.

I was 24, just getting free from my training officer as a patrolman in a wealthy northern suburb.  The most recent Chicago Police test, which had ranked me “highly qualified”, was frozen in court due to an Affirmative Action lawsuit.  While I waited for the suit to be settled, I wanted to learn as much as possible.
Tommy and I were quite the pair, the old bull and the young bull.

I had taken this night off to ride along with my friend Tommy in the Humboldt Park neighborhood-District 14, A.K.A. “Shakespeare”.  This name was no mystery, just the street the station was on.  My father and Tommy’s father had worked as policemen at this very station years ago.

I guessed this weeknight would be a slow one.  Nothing had happened in my suburb for weeks, and the temperature was 9 degrees and falling.  I arrived 1 hour late because I got off my shift at 8am and had slept till 4pm.  Tommy had started at 4pm without me.

As I drove up, Tommy was standing on the sidewalk, gesturing wildly.  He looked like his usual animated, friendly self, six foot 4 inches and slim.  His thick wool thigh-length police reefer coat draped across his wide shoulders made him look huge and intimidating.

Guys liked Tommy because he was funny and daring.  The ladies loved Tommy.  With his mustache and rugged looks, he resembled the Marlboro man.  He waved me into a made up parking space on the snowy sidewalk in front of the station.  In Chicago, cops park wherever they need to.

We checked in with the greying district commander in the basement break room.  He was using chopsticks to stuff his fat face with Chinese food.  The paper napkins stuffed in near his neck wattle kept the splattering soy sauce from staining his snow white shirt.  After introductions, he grunted in my direction and said “Don’t get hurt!”

Our first assigned squad car didn’t start, so we rushed to get another.  After all, this was The Magic Show, and I had already missed an hour.

Tommy O’Meara was well known in the 14th District.  His nickname was “19-P-Paul” because he answered a huge number of calls daily, settled them quickly, and 19-P-Paul was the radio code for “Settled by Officer-Other”.  This code was entered by the dispatcher on the dispatch card, and eliminated the need for any written report.

Most squad cars in busy districts have two officers, but Tommy was assigned to an “oh-9” unit, meaning he was riding without a partner.  Sometimes this was done to spread police out more, sometimes the officers volunteered because they preferred working alone.  Tommy had volunteered.

The first call out of the box was a burglary-in-progress.  “In progress” calls are the crack-cocaine of police work.  I got an adrenaline rush as Tommy sped us to the scene.  I trotted down a dark gangway, my late father’s shiny nickel .38 snub-nose revolver in my hand, looking for the bad guys.

After answering countless false burglar alarms and writing traffic tickets in my suburb, tonight I felt like I was finally doing real police work.
We quickly had the house surrounded, but the crooks were already gone.  Many “just discovered” calls come out as “in progress” when they are not.

What was taken?  Guns…lots of them.  As we learned, one of the kids told a friend that daddy had guns locked in a storage compartment atop the basement stairs. The friend told some more people, one of whom was a gangster.  They knew right where to find the guns.

There were only two gangs in District 14, Tommy explained, and they’re both Hispanic.  The Latin Kings ran off the white gangs years ago, and now they were being challenged by the Spanish Cobras.

Tommy turned over his notes on this burglary to a detective and we were off again, in search of the next adventure.

We caught a paper job, an auto theft that took place over an hour ago.  It had just been holding for a free police unit to take the report.  In auto theft investigations, dispatch will not put out a “WANTED” bulletin on the radio unless the officer has all the information, right down to the serial number of the expiration sticker.

Tommy and I tapped our feet impatiently until the owner found the minutiae; then Tommy switched his portable radio to the data channel to transmit the necessary numbers.    After we cleared, we were assigned a second auto theft investigation.  We had already investigated more felonies than I’d handled in a month in my suburb.

Around 7pm, we bought some sandwiches from a convenience store for dinner.  “Buy what’s already wrapped” Tommy said, “That way they can’t spit in it.”  Charming!

We pulled over to eat our sandwiches in a dark parking lot behind a school.  Another two-man squad pulled next to us, driver’s window to driver’s window.  “Who’s your friend?” the driver asked, his face obscured by the shadows.

“Dis is my friend Mike, he’s from duh suburb’s finest.  He’s my ride along tonight.” Tommy replied.

“Oh, I figured he was from Internal Affairs” the shadow said with a snicker, “I heard you like to talk to dem.”

“Hey, FUCK YOU!” Tommy sputtered, throwing the car into drive.  But the shadow threw his squad into reverse, spinning his tires and almost causing an accident.  Both cars stopped in a cloud of smoke, and the shadow said,“You know what happens to worms, right?  Someone puts a hook through them and they end up at the bottom of the harbor!”

After shadow man sped away, Tommy looked at me and said “Believe me, yer better off working in duh suburbs.  There’s a lot of BAD GUYS on dis department.”  Tommy and I vowed long ago not to get in the other’s business, so I nodded and ate my food in silence.  It had no taste.

Imagine having the past 10 or 20 years of your career summed up in two words.  As police officers, we must use shorthand, a code, to classify fellow officers.  Due to constantly changing schedules, illness, promotions, vacations, and the fact that police work is a 24-hour-a-day business, each day brings the possibility of being thrown together with different co-workers or bosses.  In life-and-death situations, we cannot afford to take a year or so to get to know new people, so we ask around.

The highest compliment is to be known as a “good cop”.  That’s a guy who manages to make important arrests while using appropriate force, watching out for his partner, doing necessary paperwork, and keeping the bosses happy.

It’s also desirable to work with a “good guy”, a “standup guy”, or an “OK guy”.  It’s even acceptable to work with a “straight guy” a “by the book guy”, a “go-along guy”, or a “boy scout”.  Adventure-seekers may like to work with a “scary guy”, or a “cowboy”.  Tommy was somewhere in the good cop, cowboy, or scary guy realm, depending on his mood.  The difference between a badguy and a BAD GUY, however, is that a BAD GUY is either a crooked cop, or a cop who has killed someone.  Either way, I took Tommy’s warning to heart.

Some police departments have their own slang.  If you get arrested in New York, you “take a collar”.  In L.A., the “perp gets popped”.  In Philly, the “perp” is an “actor”, but in Chicago, the “badguy” gets “pinched”.  Everyone on the street is an asshole, but only criminals are shitheads.  So an officer would be crystal clear if he said “Out of those four assholes hangin’ on the corner, the two on the right are known shitheads, and the badguy in the stickup is the one in the red hat.”  Ergo, all shitheads are assholes, but not all assholes are shitheads.

After dinner, the calls started coming in faster, and my adrenalin buzz was renewed.  “1421, one-four-two-one” the female dispatcher said calmly, “2420 Armitage, second floor, the Domestic.  Mom says dad is drunk and threw her and the kids out in the snow.”  Fourteen was our district number, twenty-one was our beat.  Tommy acknowledged and drove over.  Domestic disturbances are always dangerous because strong emotions are involved, and one or both parties can suddenly turn against the police.

We found mom cowering in the chilly hallway with two small children, and she did not speak English well.  Tommy walked past her and banged on the door, but got no response.  “He’s hasleeping” mom managed.

The door opened a bit from the banging, but it was chained eye-high.  Tommy winked at me as he turned his back to the door and bounced his butt into it sharply.  The small chain burst and we sprang into the room, catching dad still asleep.

Tommy, seemingly in one motion, rousted dad out of bed, picked a wad of cash out of dad’s pocket, threw a coat on him, and said “Go to your mom’s!  Su mama!”  In motion number two, he shoved the man out the door, ushered mom and the kids back in, and presented her with the cash.

“Thank You!” “Gracias!”  She said.

Radio code?  “19-P-Paul”.

We rode around awhile in the cold.  Suddenly it was quiet…too quiet.  “1450 and Gang Units on Citywide, we got a woman shot, woman shot, North and California, North and California!”  We were only a block away, so we were first unit on the scene.  My body’s adrenalin spigot flipped wide open now.

“AAAAiiiieeee, aaaiiiieeee! The girl screamed.

I was calm now, riding the adrenalin wave like a surfer.  “Why do Hispanics scream aaaaiiieee and whites scream aaaahhhh or OW?”  I wondered as I walked up to the scene.  Everything seemed to change to slow motion.  The video recorder in my head switched to “Record”, noticing all the details.  After we realized the shooters were gone, we holstered our pistols, and I moved toward the noise.

The screaming girl was being tended to by friends.  They were leaning in the open driver’s door of the car as the girl sat in the driver’s seat.  I was on the other side looking in through the open passenger door.

There was a silver dollar sized black hole in the girl’s upper left chest.  It went right through her grey wool overcoat, and alongside a pink lacy decoration she wore over her heart.  There was a burn mark around the hole, evidence of a close-up shooting, a foot or less.  There were even small holes next to the big one, caused by burning gunpowder leaving a short barrel.  No empty shell was found on the ground.

“Probably a sawed-off single shot 12 gauge shotgun.” I thought.  Guns are a hobby of mine.

They pulled her coat and blouse back to examine the wound, a horrible sight.  A clean round large hole frothed pinkish mucus each time she struggled to breathe.  There was nothing I could do, and the ambulance had just arrived, so I moved away.

As I turned, another officer had the girl’s skinny boyfriend by the lapels and was screaming at him.   “OK, Lemme get dis straight! Your girlfriend was sitting next to you in duh car, and somebody walks up and blows her tit off, and YOU DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING?  You better TALK, and NOW!”  He shook the teen like a dog toy.  The boy’s toes barely touched the ground.

“Mike!  C’mon, let’s GO!  I got duh story!”  Tommy said.  We ran for our squad as the radio crackled again.

“All units on Citywide and units at the scene, the offenders are 3 to 4 male Hispanics last seen northbound on California in an aqua colored T-bird.  3 to 4 male Hispanics, aqua T-bird!”

“Aqua T-bird?” I thought, “There can’t be a lot of those out tonight.”  There was nothing moving on the street.  Sundown had brought even more chill into the clear air.

“So here’s duh story.” Tommy said as we cruised some local hangouts.  “Jose and his girl are in his car, parked. ‘Course she was drivin’, ‘cause he ain’t got no license.  Duh hitters walk up, point a shotgun, and demand money.  She tells the little gangsters to go fuck demselves, and junior pulls duh trigger.  Then they take off in duh T-bird.  Duh little fuckers.”  Tommy shook his head wearily.  Even after years of working these crimes, I can tell that it still bothers him to see innocent people suffer.

Well get‘em!” I said, hopefully.  But we were running out of places to look.

“HOLY SHIT!  AQUA COUGAR, AQUA COUGAR!” I yelled, pointing.  Being car guys, Tommy and I knew that in some years the Cougar resembled the T-bird.  “Fuckin-A!” Tommy added, swinging a snappy u-turn.  We had not found the car because it was not here. This car was just coming back into the district, crossing the river on a bridge.  We guessed that they went over near the river to dump the gun.  Another adrenalin rush hit me.

We pulled the Cougar over and were quickly joined by everyone in the district, it seemed. The four gangsters were not new to police tactics, and they emerged very cooperatively with their hands on their heads.  Lucky for them, because there were 4 or 5 guns pointed at each one of them.  “No speek ingless!” they each said, smiling.  Why were they smiling?  I searched them as Tommy covered me.  We passed them off to detectives, and then I dove eagerly into the car to find the gun.  The back seat was already loose, telling us this was not the Cougar’s first search.

The girl, Juanita…Clarita…, something, died while we were arresting the gangsters.  This shooting was now a murder investigation.  My head swam, struggling to absorb all the facts and small details.

Our first theory proved correct, the gun was long gone.  It was now up to detectives to extract a confession, or to have the shooter identified by witnesses. They could even swab all their hands for GSR-gunshot residue, and send the swabs to the lab.

It was now 1145 m, or 2345 in police talk. Tommy’s shift ended at midnite. It was time to head in already.

As we drove to the station, a huge old Buick in front of us weaved to and fro, nearly missing parked cars on both sides of the street.  We pulled them over to the curb, and five Hispanic males emerged, drunk, belligerent, and stumbling.  None had identification.

“Get in, Mike, let’s go!” Tommy yelled.

“What’s up, another shooting?” I asked.

“No, it’s time to go home!” Tommy said with a smile.

“Well, what about that drunk driver?” I asked as we sped off.  “He’s going to kill someone!”

“Not tonight he isn’t!”  Tommy rolled down the window of his speeding squad car and threw the man’s car keys out into the snow.


It was zero degrees, a crisp, clear night. The lights of the Chicago skyline twinkled my rearview mirror as I ascended the ramp onto the outbound Kennedy Expressway.  Halfway home to my cozy apartment on the edge of Chicago, the thermostat of my old Firebird rolled open, flooding the cockpit with wonderful, warm air.  My adrenalin high was just beginning to subside.

I was hooked.  I felt the calling.  Like my father and grandfather, police work was in my blood.  My brother said once during dad’s long nights at work, “Being a policeman is not a job, like a carpenter.  It’s a vocation, like being a priest.”  As I drove, I began to understand.

I wondered if any of the gangsters we caught would be charged in the murder.

It didn’t matter.  I had finally seen The Magic Show.  Tommy O’Meara had paid the high cost of admission.

He had front row seats.

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