“There are certain things you just don’t talk about.” Those were some of the last words Larry Williams said to me before he stopped answering my questions about his 32 years as a Chicago cop.
“Excessive force is a gray area,” he said during our last interview. “It’s a shady area.” As a former police lieutenant, detective, tactical sergeant, and patrol officer, Williams knew the weight of these words. I did too.
From 1987 to 1995, I was an investigator for the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS), a civilian unit that investigated complaints of misconduct, especially excessive force. I questioned hundreds of officers about a range of misconduct allegations, everything from handcuffs-too-tight beefs to broken ribs to suffocation with a plastic bag. I was used to seeing cops shut down.
My highest-profile and most sensitive case was the reinvestigation of Andrew Wilson’s allegations of torture against former police commander Jon Burge. In 1993, as a result of my investigation and the Police Board hearing that followed, Burge was fired from the department. In 2010 he was convicted on federal charges of perjury and is currently serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence.
For many, Burge’s sentence seemed to provide long-overdue closure. For me, after years away from investigative work, it just pulled at the scab on an old wound. It was a potent reminder of everything that wouldn’t get resolved that day in federal court, and all the questions that had haunted me—and still do.
As an investigator I asked questions, but most dealt with the “who,” “what,” and “where.” I had wanted answers to the “how” and “why,” but my job wasn’t about that.
In recent years I’ve found myself coming back to those other questions: Why do good cops cross the line? How do some manage not to? Why do some cops, but not others, intervene when they see fellow cops go too far? How do cops define excessive force? How do cops see things?
I had heard plenty about what cops did, but I wanted to know the triggers behind their actions—and behind their displays of restraint. So I decided to talk with some ex-cops.
I figured their distance from the job and the culture might let them be more open. And I hoped my own distance from the department and especially from the Burge case might make them more comfortable talking to me.
A lot’s changed since I worked at OPS. In 2007, the unit was replaced by a new civilian agency no longer tethered to the police department, the city’s Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA).
I’ve changed, too. Instead of living inside the world of civilian investigations, I’ve been writing about it. I also teach writing and film courses. I no longer correct people when they say “police brutality” instead of “excessive force” and I don’t look at someone and immediately identify them as “male, Hispanic” or “female, black” or some other category that I’ll be checking off on a report. But I know one thing is constant: excessive force incidents continue to divide the police from the people they signed on to serve and protect. Excessive force, like our magnificent lakefront, is a fixture of our city.
The six ex-cops I interviewed for this story all seemed to have been good, hardworking officers. The group includes a mix of races, genders, backgrounds, and on-the-job assignments. Another ex-cop, a friend, provided a lot of valuable insights, but later decided he didn’t want his identity revealed in the article. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he backed out. While talking to these ex-cops about what they saw and did on the job, I often wondered if the past really was behind us.
“There’s a lot the public doesn’t understand about police work.”
Larry Williams joined the CPD in 1964. He’s a tall African-American man with an imposing presence, but his demeanor and the way he moves suggest a more poetic profession. I arrived early for our last meeting, in a small north-side cafe. Williams quickly reviewed the setup and said we needed to move. I’d been around enough cops to know that most wouldn’t want their backs to the door, but Williams also wanted to sit where he could see more of the room. He retired in 1995, but in his heart he’s still a cop. During our interviews, he often spoke of being a police officer in the present tense.
Williams said that in black communities, like the Bronzeville neighborhood where he grew up, “police were the bogeyman.”
“We had respect for the police,” he said. “A lot of this came from our parents. They would say, ‘If you did this or that, the police will get you.'” Williams said things are not the same today.
“I didn’t really want to be a cop,” he continued. “I wanted to go to school.” But after serving a stint in the Army and two years of college, Williams joined the CPD in 1965.
“There’s a lot the public doesn’t understand about police work,” he explained. He described the conflict faced by all the ex-cops I spoke with, the one that pits wanting to do the right thing—be respectful and treat people with dignity—against needing to control those who don’t respect the law.
“You’ve got to have search-and-destroy officers,” Williams said. “These are aggressive officers—usually veteran officers, guys that refuse to be defeated. The officers that go into a fire with gasoline thrown on them. Hard-core criminals are not afraid of anybody. If you don’t have these search-and-destroy officers, you have chaos.”
He said there are “legitimate” ways to achieve this mentality of fearlessness. One of them is military training. Of the six ex-cops I interviewed, three—including Williams—had military backgrounds. “The mental indoctrination never leaves,” he said.
Another way to reach this mentality is to be raised in the projects. “Because of the environment, they develop a survival instinct,” Williams said of public housing residents, “and in order to survive, they learn how to fight.” He said officers who come from either background have an edge.
“There’s a need for a certain degree of intellectual ability in a police force,” he continued. “But the pendulum has been swinging too much toward intellectual ability. There are not enough ghetto police officers.”
On those occasions when he went too far, “It was for a message. For respect.”
I don’t know if Williams would call Nathaniel Hanserd a “ghetto police officer” but I’m pretty sure he’d describe him as fearless. Hanserd, who retired from the CPD in 2004, is a 60-year-old African-American with a strong face and muscular build. He was one of the few ex-cops I spoke to who was willing to talk openly about excessive force, including some incidents when his own actions went too far.
This wasn’t the first time Hanserd sat across from me to answer questions. We first met at OPS more than 15 years ago, when he was an accused officer on one of my excessive force cases. About all I remember is that I concluded the evidence proved the allegations. Hanserd didn’t remember much, either, but said I’d been fair with him.
As a kid, Hanserd experienced a strong police presence in his community. He said this played a major role in shaping his attitude toward policing. “I saw the police as horrible,” he said, specifically when he was between the ages of ten and 13. He was living at 94th and Elizabeth streets; at the time there weren’t too many black families in the area. One of the recurring themes of those years was run-ins between Hanserd (and his black friends) and the white street gang known as the 95th Street Gents. Hanserd said he also had a lot of encounters with the police. “Eighty percent of the time it was with white officers and it was a negative experience.” He said the officers were always grabbing his friends when anything happened in the neighborhood. “They couldn’t catch me,” he said.
But he remembered a white cop who would regularly stop by his home and tell his mother that he didn’t believe in the racist behavior of the other cops in the area. Later, she’d tell her son, “You know, not all of them are bad.” And there were a couple of other positive experiences where the cops “did their job the way it was supposed to be done. Not through nonsense.”
Hanserd joined the CPD in 1982 after five years with the Cook County sheriff’s department. He said he felt “called” to the job. “God told me, ‘Take the job and you will help your people.'” Hanserd said he wanted to be the kind of officer he didn’t see enough of growing up—an officer that people would see “had an investment” in their community. He views white officers coming into black neighborhoods as interlopers. “They don’t live in the community,” he said. “They do their job and leave.”
He credits his military training as another major influence on his police work. Prior to working at the sheriff’s department, he trained with special forces and served two tours in Vietnam. Hanserd called Vietnam the place “where I learned to kill.” He said the military teaches you “how to kill with no remorse. And how to control the impulse of when and where to kill.”
Hanserd said he never lost control as a cop, but that he was perhaps excessive a couple of times. He said that on those occasions when he went too far, “It was for a message. For respect.”
He described an incident that took place early in his career, one morning near 45th and Vincennes. He and his two partners were in their squad car, lights out, just observing the street. They noticed a man in a hoodie had turned around and start following a young woman. The man grabbed her and took her into a basement. Hanserd and his partners followed.
“It’s like a maze. We hear her. It’s dark. We get to her. He’s got her down on her knees. He’s trying to push his penis into her mouth. Saying, ‘Suck it.'”
Hanserd said that when the woman refused, the man punched her. Just as she started to open her mouth, one of Hanserd’s partners grabbed the guy and kicked him to the ground. He and his partners then got the man on his knees and Hanserd stuck his .44 Magnum in his mouth. “‘Now you suck it,’ I tell him. When he didn’t, I said, ‘Then be prepared to meet your maker.'” Hanserd said the man started crying and he took the gun out of his mouth.
I asked Hanserd if he’d do anything differently if he could do it over. He said he wouldn’t, but later in our interview, he told me, “I should never have done that.” But he added: “I don’t think he tried to rape anyone again.”
Hanserd remembered another incident when he went too far. He and his partner pulled over a driver, a paraplegic man who’d reportedly struck close to a dozen cars. They saw he was drunk and tried to pull him out of the car. In front of a large crowd, the man spit on Hanserd and started swinging. Hanserd said the crowd was against the man at first, but when they saw he was a paraplegic they turned against Hanserd and his partner. He said that later, in a holding room at the station, the man bit him on the chest when he handed him a cup of water.
“He’s like a pit bull holding on.” Hanserd said his martial arts training kicked in and he knocked the guy off him and punched him a few times.
As a result of the incident, Hanserd needed to go to the hospital to get shots—and he and the paraplegic driver ended up at Christ hospital in the same room. “He’s in the next bed with a curtain between us. I could hear the guy telling the doctor that five cops jumped on him. And that he ‘bit some sissy-ass cop.'” Later, a nurse asked Hanserd what the man who bit him looked like, and then she opened the curtain and “there he was.” In the presence of the doctor, Hanserd told the man they had some unfinished business. The doctor stepped out, and Hanserd flipped the paraplegic man off the bed onto the floor.
“That was excessive,” Hanserd said. “But not the rest.”
“Don’t fuck with me. I have a big yard with lots of flowers.”
I interviewed Donna Adams several times in late 2011 at Donna’s Cafe, a small mom-and-pop restaurant in the South Loop. A 58-year-old African-American, Adams ran the cafe—it has since closed—after retiring in 2010 from a 25-year career with the CPD. When I walked in and spotted her behind the counter, I immediately knew she was the boss. Despite being almost a foot shorter than me, she had a powerful presence; it must have served her well on the streets of Englewood.
When I asked Adams if she had ever lost control and crossed the line, she didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” she said. She stated that she “lost it” on offenders who had committed crimes against people. When this happened, she needed to do a little “extracurricular.”
One time a man held a knife to a postal worker and threatened to rape her. Adams was the first officer on the scene. When she arrived the man had dropped his knife, but she saw the woman’s hands had been sliced down to the tendons.
Her response: “I was beating on him like he was a drum.” That was years ago, and Adams said, “Given the chance, I’d do it again.” She said she’d been a rape victim herself.
Another time, Adams got to the scene of a domestic disturbance and found a man in a “baseball stance” holding a bed splat over a little girl. The girl was crying and screaming. Adams said she jumped on the man, wrapped her legs around him, and started beating him with her baton.
“I was beating him and beating him and beating him,” she said. When she stopped, the little girl jumped into Adams’s arms and held her in a “death grip.” That’s when Adams noticed the deep gash in her head. The man told the officers that his daughter “wasn’t learning how to tell time fast enough.”
“I would do that again,” said Adams.
If either of the men that Adams beat had filed a complaint, it’s possible she would have faced disciplinary action. The same is true of Hanserd. It doesn’t matter if the “victim” behaves poorly—even diabolically. I used to tell my trainees at OPS, “We don’t get to pick our complainants.” The job was about determining whether the cop’s actions were excessive given the totality of circumstances—not whether they were understandable. But now, with the passage of time—and my desire to take what I learned as an investigator and use it to better understand excessive force—I want to figure out the situations that are most likely to push cops over the edge.
A sense of urgency seemed to be a factor in many cops’ decision making. Adams said that when she crossed the line, it was because “justice needed to be meted out at that time—not later. If [disrespect for the law] doesn’t get addressed now, they’ll do it again to the next officer, but the next time it escalates.”
Adams said if she saw people on a corner were “up to no good,” she didn’t hesitate to take action. One of her tactics was to make them lie down on the ground in a puddle or snow or mud. “Word got out,” she said. “They didn’t stand around on that corner anymore.”
Adams now lives in Englewood, in the same district she used to patrol. When she moved into her neighborhood there were two drug houses, one next to her and one down the street. Even before she bought the house, she told the neighborhood dealers, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
“I’d hang my [firing range] targets—the good ones, the ones with nice clusters with one up by the head—in the window of my house.” Off-duty, she’d tell the dealers, “I will kill you. Don’t fuck with me. I have a big yard with lots of flowers.” The result, she said, was that they started moving out and “taking their shit somewhere else.”
This need for officers to send a message for the long term was something I’d never really considered before. But whether it’s 16th-century Tudors displaying the severed heads of criminals on London Bridge or 21st-century Mexican drug lords dumping body parts of snitches and rivals—or police officers—in a variety of public places, or Chicago cops ordering gangbangers to lie in the mud, the objective seems the same: to send a warning that violators of the order will not be tolerated. Rule breakers will pay.
After a while, it got easier to say, “Get on the floor, motherfucker.”
Julie Schalk, 61, a white woman with a warm face and easy presence, is a former tactical officer and internal affairs investigator. We talked over a long afternoon, and a lot of our conversation was about Schalk’s youth and upbringing. Schalk said when she grew up in the 50s, she had no exposure to the police, aside from her dad’s “tremendous admiration” for police officers.
“He would keep a $5 bill behind his driver’s license,” Schalk said, “for when he’d get pulled over.” Her father saw it as a “thank you,” because he felt cops didn’t make much. She remembered one time when cops stopped and frisked him and called in his plates. They had the wrong car, but “when he came home and told us what happened, he talked about it like it was the greatest day in his life.”
Schalk, who attended a Catholic school, said she “didn’t swear before this job.” She quickly discovered that no one listened to “Sir, would you please get on the ground?” And after a while, it got easier to say, “Get on the floor, motherfucker.”
“Your demeanor has to command respect,” she said. “Your demeanor has to meet their demeanor.”
Like Schalk, Adams feels strongly that how cops talk to people is crucial to good policing—and to keeping a lid on volatile situations.
As a young officer, Adams developed her own approach. During her first interaction with a person—whether it was a victim, offender, or anyone else she came in contact with—she’d say, “I’m gonna let you dictate how I’m going to treat you.” Then she would look at the person and ask, “How am I going to treat you?” Adams said this made others share responsibility for whatever happened next.
“People in custody would say, ‘If you didn’t have that badge, if you didn’t have that gun, I’d kick your ass.’ So, I’d say: Oh, OK.” Adams would then take off her star, cuffs, and gun. “And I’d be like, OK, now what?” In most cases, the person would back down. “They’d punk out,” she said. “They realized that their mouth just wrote a check that their ass couldn’t cash.”
Adams called those encounters “fun.” Why? “They’re not cuffed anymore. There’s not going to be a fight. I kept things under control and kept the person from doing something they probably didn’t want to do.” She said it also felt good breaking down barriers “even if it was just for 30 minutes. You’ve made a connection person to person.”
“The public has to realize that police are humans, too,” she continued. “We have our good days and bad days.” Adams would tell people she had a headache or that she needed to get some food, anything to show she was one of them, not the “other,” and to get them to focus on something other than their rage or misery. She said that talking about something mundane and specific often helped to “bring the conversation down.”
Williams, the former lieutenant, said his job as a supervisor was to keep incidents from escalating. “When you’re dealing with a normal situation,” he said, “you can walk away from it.
“But some situations, you can’t walk away from.”
One of those took place early in his career, during the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Williams and other officers were trying to prevent lines of protesters from getting to one of the Michigan Avenue hotels. Some of the crowd became violent. “The protesters threw bags of human defecation on us, all kinds of garbage. They put dogs on us. It was us against them,” he said. “At this point, we’re not telling them, ‘You’re under arrest.'” The officers raised their clubs and starting knocking people down.
When language escalates in verbal exchanges, Williams advocates bringing the level down. But in dealing with physical assaults, he said, it’s the “law of the ghetto.”
“Police officers don’t have to educate people. They have to take control of a situation.”
Albert Lee Parks turned 68 on the day of our interview at the downtown Barnes & Noble in late 2011. He died earlier this year. Parks, an African-American, said the only police he was exposed to during the first ten years of his life were sheriff’s deputies “chasing escapees from chain gangs in the cotton field.” He said life on the Mississippi farm where he grew up helped “build my morals and character.” Another major influence was the military. He was on active duty in Vietnam in the mid-60s and in the Army Reserve from 1976 to 1986.
Parks worked for 15 years in the 15th District, an area he said used to be called “the wild, wild west.” He denied ever crossing the line, but also told me he wasn’t going to give me the whole story.
“Police officers don’t have to educate people,” he said. “They have to take control of a situation. They can apologize later.” Like Williams, he often talked in the present tense. “I’m a cop,” he said. “As cops, we have powers of life and death. And we can do it legitimately or illegally.”
“If the offense is great enough,” he continued, “you want to hurt someone. You want justice.” But, he said, “You swallow it. You try a new method. More conciliatory. A more peaceful method. You try to bring it down.” Parks said if that doesn’t work, the person’s “either going to get locked up or beat up. Or both. If he uses his fist, I’ll use my stick. If he uses a stick, I’ll use my gun.” He said if somebody has to get hurt, he didn’t want it to be him. “I wanna go home.”
Parks said there’s a difference between a “whooping” and a “beating.” Beating meant someone had to be taken to the hospital. He seemed uncomfortable when I asked about specifics, especially regarding fellow officers. “You don’t talk about other cops’ actions,” he said.
But Parks said when he did witness abuse, he made sure the cop didn’t count on him for support. “My attitude was you talk to somebody else to back you up after you just cracked that guy’s skull or knocked somebody’s teeth out.”
What did he do when he witnessed such actions? “Nothing,” he said. “That’s your partner or someone you may be depending on to save your life. You don’t want to piss him off. It’s like the military. He’s the guy in the foxhole with you.”
“Nobody likes a snitch. You handle it yourself.”
All the ex-cops I interviewed had their own way of dealing with fellow officers who crossed the line.
Adams, who said she believed in using talk to defuse situations, said if she witnessed verbal misconduct by a fellow cop, she never reported it. “I handled it myself,” she said. Adams said she’d put the officer on notice that “there won’t be a next time.” When some white officers in her mostly white unit kept using the word “niggers,” she confronted them: “So, you’re saying that if I wasn’t wearing this blue, you’d be calling me this, too? Because the only difference between me and them is my job.”
When it came to a fellow cop’s physical misconduct, she said, there were two options: walk away or step in. But there’s a risk involved when you choose the second option, and “you want to do it without having the officer turn against you.”
One of the unwritten rules in police culture, according to Adams: “If a cop who you know is fucked up [overly aggressive] responds to your call for an assist, you say ‘disregard’ to the dispatcher.” She said officers know “who’s who” in their unit and that whenever this happened, she knew that other cops would show up to help her out.
When I asked Williams—the officer with the longest career—if he had ever seen a cop abuse someone, he was quick to respond: “Oh, yes.” He said officers have two options when they witness misconduct. Walking away is not one of them.
“You don’t just stand there and do nothing when someone’s getting beat up, because you’re part of it,” he said. “You’re as responsible as the person doing the beating. I’ve seen several incidents where an officer was beating the hell out of someone and I intervened. I stepped in between them and said that was enough. When you see abuse, you have to do something, whether you’re a patrol officer or a supervisor.”
Williams told me that in his experience most cops intervene when they see another cop go too far. “It’s the exception when you have an officer stand around when another officer is beating somebody up,” he said. I tried to probe more deeply into what he had seen, and that’s when he stopped talking to me.
I was also very interested in hearing from Schalk, the ex-cop whose dad used to stick five bucks behind his license. Schalk, who ended up working seven years in internal affairs, told me she didn’t report other officers when she worked the streets. “You didn’t do it,” she said. “Tomorrow, that same guy may have to respond to your 10-1.”
Schalk’s reaction might have something to do with her upbringing, particularly her parents’ response when she’d tattle on her brothers. “My father and mother drummed into me: nobody likes a snitch. You handle it yourself.”
One story Schalk told me about this unwritten rule of police culture involved a former partner—we’ll call him Tom. “Everyone knew he was a drunk,” she said. But no one reported it. One night while they were on patrol on the lakefront—she called it one of the two worst nights of her life—Tom got “shitfaced” while drinking beer they’d confiscated from some teens. She remembered thinking, “If an inspector or some member of the public pulled up next to us at any moment, my career could have been destroyed—and it wouldn’t have had anything to do with what I did.” Later, in the station, the watch commander, the top white shirt in the district, called her over and asked if her partner had been drinking. “It was obvious to everyone,” she said. But she told him, “Not that I’ve seen.”
Schalk said if she had said anything, “then I’d be in trouble too. And I’d have forever been a snitch.” Schalk said she never witnessed a beating by a cop, but twice saw people get hit by one. But she then pointed out: “Is this the same as kind of pregnant?”
“The reality is that police officers bring their personal problems to work and take it out on the public.”
Like the other ex-cops I talked to, Williams and Schalk see a deep connection between the personal and the professional. Personal spillover, especially financial stress, often leads to poor choices on the street.
“The problem, the reality,” Williams said, “is that police officers bring their personal problems to work and take it out on the public. Normal people having a personal problem would avoid people. But if you’re a police officer, especially if you’re working a high-crime area, you can’t avoid being in contact with people. You’re going to have confrontations. That’s the way it is.”
According to Schalk: “If there’s money on a table, the [cop] who takes it might be a thief, or he might have some personal problems.” He might have three kids to send to school. “Maybe he grabs ten bucks the first time,” she said. “But once you’ve crossed the line, it gets easier. You start justifying it to yourself. ‘That guy is a crook. I work hard. They’re not going to miss it.'”
I couldn’t help wondering if excessive force works the same way. Does it become easier to use excessive force—and to justify it—after the first time? If so, how do we keep ourselves from taking that first step?
I don’t think my interviews led to any groundbreaking new insights, but they did stir up some new and perhaps better questions, and they reminded me of some fundamental truths: You can’t come to an understanding about excessive force simply by looking at a cop’s actions and figuring out who did what. Both cops and the people in the communities they serve can be part of the problem and part of the solution. “The public are the police,” Williams told me. “And police are an extension of the community.” Building a sense of community—between cops and citizens—seems to be at the heart of things.
Donna Adams said her instructors at the training academy told the recruits repeatedly, “It’s us against them. It will always be us against them.” But Adams said she never saw it that way. If that were the case, her family and friends were them. “So I decided I’d be us but not us the police. Us as humans.”
I remember my ex-cop friend, the one who pulled out of this story, telling me that when he responded to calls in the 14th District, a community he felt connected to and familiar with, he saw the woman who opened the door as his “mom” and not just a stranger who called the cops. Maybe we can learn from this and do the same—even when the person on the other side of the door isn’t from the same background or neighborhood.
The men and women who talked to me didn’t have to. Police culture runs deep; it’s always present tense. These former cops gave me an important perspective—one I couldn’t get from behind my desk at OPS. Maybe I didn’t get a lot of answers, but I think I understand more clearly why Larry Williams, cutting short our conversation, said to me, “There are certain things you just don’t talk about.”
I do know this: we’ve got to keep talking about these things.
This story was reported with the support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.