By Bonnie McGrath
In a narrow, unpaved alley on the west side 30 little boys are gathered around Miguel Flores’s squad car taking turns on his bullhorn. “Stop! Five-O!” they squeal. “Stop! Poh-leece!” One after another they back away in delight after their words boom over a weed-filled lot.
“What’s she doin’ in the back? She steal somethin’?” one asks, looking at me sitting behind the cage barrier in the backseat.
“Hey, I wanna see you flip-flop,” says Flores. “I brought this lady over to see you flip-flop. Come on. Show her how good you can flip-flop.”
They all run over to a group of torn, filthy mattresses in the lot. One after the other they do back flips. Mattress to mattress to mattress.
“He’s the best,” says Flores, pointing to a boy who looks about 12.
“No, he is,” says a boy who’s overheard, pointing to another boy.
Flores gets out of the car and opens the trunk, and all the boys gather tightly around him as he pulls out a harmonica. He gets back in the car, closes the door, and begins to play blues.
His partner for the evening, Mark Lamberg, stares straight ahead down the alley, listening to the boys with only one ear.
Suddenly over the radio comes “Man shot!”
“Gotta go, guys,” says Flores. “We gotta go.”
As we pull away, one of the boys yells at me, “You stop stealing!”
Flores is three-quarters of the way through his shift, and for the first time this evening he turns on his Mars lights and hits the horn. He slows down slightly at intersections, saying he worries mostly about other squad cars that may be in as much of a hurry as he is.
His car is first on the scene, at the corner of Madison and California. A man is facedown on the sidewalk in front of a seedy liquor store. Another man is hovering over him, and a small crowd of people of all ages are watching, their faces empty–not sad, not scared, not angry.
Flores calls for an ambulance, then tells everyone to step back. Lamberg has disappeared into the crowd.
Flores takes a roll of yellow tape from the squad car and ties it to street poles. More squad cars appear, and officers get out and watch. Then the ambulance arrives, and the paramedics pull plastic gloves on and begin CPR. A few minutes later they put the victim in the ambulance. An officer places little tent-shaped white cards over three shell casings.
“No one saw anything,” says Lamberg, emerging from the crowd, a touch of sarcasm in his voice. “No one’s talking.”
Flores and the other policemen quickly determine that officers from another district will conduct the criminal investigation. He drives away before the ambulance does, a sign that there’s no chance the man will survive.
The day had started peacefully for Miguel Flores, star 2525, who’s been an officer since 1987. As he does most mornings, he took his two preschool daughters to the forest preserve at Irving Park and Cumberland to run with the deer. “There’s a lot of them in there, in the interior. My one daughter is like a cheetah. She finds them, she walks real slow over to them and crouches down near them. Sometimes they run away. I call one of my girls Running Dear With Deer and the other one Little Storm.”
As he does every day, he packed his lunch for work. Today it’s a fried-pinto-bean sandwich made with olive oil, not lard.
At 3 PM he’s at roll call at the 13th District station–the Wood Street station, at 937 N. Wood. A few minutes later he and Lamberg check their squad car carefully for any damage that might have been caused by the previous shift. Then they roll out of the parking lot to begin their patrol.
“This area’s hot,” Flores says as he drives slowly down Lake past the nearly empty hulks of the Henry Horner Homes. “That playground wasn’t there before the convention. Neither was that wrought-iron fence.
“They used to do their shooting here under the Green Line–with the noise you couldn’t hear shots fired. I remember one day a guy set another guy’s car on fire over there. When the guy came out to see what was wrong he popped him in the head. I got a lot of overtime for that. Another time a guy got pushed out that seventh-floor window up there by a bunch of 16-year-olds.
“It’s not as busy here as it was a while back. The buildings are becoming obsolete. The Traveling Vice Lords and the Four Corner Hustlers aren’t as active. We don’t have to break up their powwows–passing guns, making plans–anymore. The thing to do in a project is to get in, make the arrest, get out, and don’t linger.”
Flores approaches a group of little boys who are flip-flopping on a small hill of rubble. “I tried to do it once with them,” he says. “I took my gun off–and almost broke my back. I think this is where Jesse White gets his tumblers. This is where he must have thought up the whole idea.”
A kid approaches Flores with a small Lone Ranger mask in hand. “Could I rob someone with this?” the kid asks, smirking.
“The mentality!” Flores exclaims. “See what’s on these kids’ minds? They’re really just like everyone else. They’re sharp. They’re no dummies. It’s just that they have things like junkies in their lives.”
Just west of the United Center we pass new town homes, then magnificent rehabbed mansions with well-tended grounds, one of which is used as a girls’ home, another as a halfway house for released felons.
As we slowly cover the 2000 block of Warren Boulevard, Flores explains how he got his badge number. “They called me one day and told me a lieutenant from downtown had a son or daughter coming out. I had her old number, and she wanted it for her kid. My sergeant told me, ‘Don’t feel pressured to give it up. Do what you want.’ So I went downtown to pick another number–I could pick any number I wanted that was available. I picked 2525 because I knew I’d remember it. It was a good thing I gave up the old number, because that lieutenant I gave up my number for became the commander of my district.”
Suddenly he stops the squad car at a neat little house with several old men sitting on the stoop. “Hey, you guys OK now? You guys talkin’ now?”
“Hey, about that harp, brother,” says one.
As he drives on, Flores explains that he had to stop at the house a few nights back. One of the men had called and complained that the others were drinking and talking too loud. “He was probably jealous because he wanted to be with them. What could I do? They weren’t doing anything illegal. Just sitting and talking and having a beer. So I pulled out my harmonica. I played. When I get the urge, I play when I feel it’s going to calm a situation.”
The first call of the day comes over the radio, a call to get rid of “an obnoxious panhandler” at a gas station on Western. Flores drives over, and he and Lamberg go in to talk to the proprietors, two East Indians. They say a guy in a green jacket has been hassling their patrons.
The two get back into the car and drive to a gas station just down the street. They approach a guy who’s carrying some rags but not wearing a green jacket.
“You’re not wanted over there. They’re complaining about you,” says Flores.
The guy apologizes and says he’ll move on. Then he explains that he’d come here to get some rags, apparently to wash people’s car windows back at the East Indians’ station.
Flores can’t explain how he knew where to look for the guy or how he knew who he was without seeing the green jacket. “I just knew that was him. These offenders know how to strip down.”
On Madison near the United Center a woman in a too-tight T-shirt spots Flores driving toward her. She bends over and appears to be picking up change. Flores pulls up. “What’s going on, dear?” he asks in a singsong voice. “You’re just going to the store, right?”
“Yeah,” she says, giving him a halfway dirty look.
A sports utility vehicle pulls up alongside the squad car. Two giggly women ask for a good place to park and eat before going to a concert at the United Center. Flores sends them to Greek Town.
Another sports utility vehicle, going west on Madison near Ashland, pulls up with a giggly couple who are lost. They want to know how to get to the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. Flores sends them in the right direction. They’re about to make an illegal U-turn when they catch him looking at them disapprovingly. They turn around in a driveway.
A call comes over the radio about a trash fire at Sacramento and Carroll. When we arrive firemen are dousing flames between two warehouses that are being renovated. “We shouldn’t be breathing this stuff,” warns Flores. “We don’t have oxygen masks.”
The fire isn’t serious and is well under control, so Flores heads east to a spot at Kinzie and Sangamon to take a little break. He likes the view of downtown from this angle. Lamberg steps out of the car for a cigarette.
“You know, a partner is like a husband or wife,” says Flores. “If my partner has more time in than I do, they can smoke in the car–but I get out. If I have more time, then they have to get out to smoke.
“Have I ever showed you this view before?” he asks Lamberg.
“Yeah, I think it was on our second date.”
Flores slows down to observe some suspicious-looking guys at a construction site at Francisco and Carroll. He says people steal lots of unsecured wire from such areas, then burn the insulation off and sell the copper. He and Lamberg start laughing about the time they saw some kids trying to make off with 1,500 pounds of wire from a Com Ed storage area. “It was so funny. They really thought they were going to move it.”
We pass a cluster of small industrial buildings on Lake Street, and Lamberg points out the air-conditioning units on the roofs. “They climb on those kinds of roofs and they pull out small pieces of copper from the air conditioners.”
“The wire’s worth $5–and they cause $5,000 worth of damage to the air conditioner,” says Flores.
The first of several burglary-in-progress calls this shift comes over the radio. This one is at a warehouse at California and Fulton with a jumpy security guard–they’ve been there before. Several squads converge at the scene, and everyone spreads out to check doors. They’re all secure. Several officers climb on top of the adjacent railroad tracks to check the roof. Everything appears to be OK.
Flores casually points to a group of kids playing basketball. “That’s probably the guy,” he says. Among the kids is an older guy who’s not dressed for a game and who’s playing a little too nonchalantly.
Flores says that people do all kinds of goofy things to burglar alarms trying to put the police off their guard. “They jiggle doors so that the alarm goes off and off and off until we get bored.” Then they break in. “But we don’t get bored. We respond.” He says sometimes people call about trouble at one end of the district so that the coast is clear at the other end. He shrugs his shoulders. “Doesn’t really work.”
As afternoon turns to evening more and more cars and pedestrians are sporting Mexican flags to commemorate Mexican Independence Day. Flores says he can’t remember who the Mexicans got their independence from on this anniversary, the Spanish or the French. That sets him thinking about his father, a reformed alcoholic who raised five kids, and about how angry he was when he was younger and how he boxed to dissipate the anger.
“A lot of people use this holiday for drive-bys and to get drunk,” says Flores. “Like the Fourth of July.”
He pulls up next to a squad with two female officers making a report on a domestic-battery victim in the backseat. “She looks like that girlfriend of the guy who lives on Warren,” says Flores. “Your boyfriend live on Warren?” he shouts over to the woman. She shakes her head.
Flores drives on, describing another woman who was badly beaten by her husband over some cocaine. When Flores arrived she got angry, then filed a report accusing him of hitting her. “You believe that?” he asks.
Then he describes how as a boy in 1969 he’d been walking from his home on West Huron to get some ice cream and eight black girls beat him up. Soon after that his family moved to Albany Park. “There’s two races for me–good and bad,” he says wistfully. “The bottom line is, I treat people with respect. You gotta put yourself in people’s shoes and have some sympathy for what they’re going through. I make arrests, drug pinches, do reports, speak to people, traffic violations–a lot of people talk themselves into tickets. I worked the wagon. They thought I was great with the people. I once had to put an officer in the wagon. He’d been on the job four hours, and they found out he was involved in bank fraud and stuff. He told me to watch the bumps.”
A cab two cars ahead of us makes a left turn on red. Flores speeds up, but the car ahead of him doesn’t move out of the way fast enough. The cab turns another corner and disappears from sight. “Oh well, he didn’t kill anybody, I guess. By the way, I don’t do anything I’d give someone a ticket for.”
Flores swings over to “Ukie Village,” pointing out good restaurants, new construction, and some neglected-looking houses that are “drug spots.” Occasionally he stops and speaks to some gangbangers in Spanish. “These Ashland Vikings and Harrison Gents, they were on cable TV. Can you believe it? One guy, I’ve been arresting him since he was about 16. He’s got a real chip on his shoulder, he thinks he’s tough. I arranged to meet him [at a boxing gym]. I worked him over pretty good, and I got his respect. Now he stays out of trouble.” Flores asks some of the gangbangers if the guy’s around. No one knows where he is, but they all smile at the mention of the boxing match.
A gangbanger drives around the corner of Chestnut and Greenview, his tires squealing. He stops short when he sees Flores.
“You still workin’ for your old man?” Flores asks him.
The kid says he’s working for himself in a lock shop near the taco stand his father owned on Ashland.
“You behavin’?” Flores asks him.
The kid smiles and drives off.
“Don’t light up, now,” Flores calls after him.
Next Flores makes a stop at Saint Mary’s Hospital on Division, the northern end of his district. “We take all our victims here. We have a good rapport with everyone here. You know, when you have a uniform on people treat you a certain way. Sometimes like a soldier of the state, sometimes like a busboy.”
After a pleasant chat with the hospital security guard and a bathroom stop, Flores drives over to Jacob Beidler Elementary at Walnut and Kedzie, where another burglar alarm has gone off. The same squads that answered the last call arrive, and the same faces check for potential prowlers. But everything’s locked and quiet.
It’s dark when Flores pulls up at the corner of Warren and California, responding to a call from someone who lives in a row house turned flophouse about a man who’d hit another man in the mouth with a brick. The rooming-house proprietor, a middle-aged woman, takes Flores to a nearby “drinkin’ lot,” and introduces him to an older man, the man who’d allegedly been hit. He gets into the backseat of the squad car, and we head off to find a man he calls Curtis.
“He’s a dope fiend,” says the man, who reeks of alcohol. “My mouth is all cut up and stitched.” He directs Flores to drive a few blocks to a house on Maypole where several middle-aged people are sitting on the front steps.
“Hey,” Flores calls out to the group. “Where’s Curtis?”
“He ain’t around,” several of them say. None of them makes eye contact with Flores or Lamberg.
Finally Flores takes the man back to the lot to join his drinking friends. “Call again if you see him,” he says as the man gets out.
Flores travels slowly west on Washington near Sacramento and almost comes to a stop to admire another big house that’s being renovated. He shines a floodlight on it.
“Can I help you with something? You following me?” says a guy belligerently.
“I’m not following you,” says Flores, then pulls the car slightly in front of the guy. “Are you following me?”
Another burglary in progress. At a dilapidated row house on Fulton the man who lives in the filthy upstairs flat–crumbling walls and floors, cockroaches, piles of old paint cans and rags–says that someone has broken in. He’s agitated and scared. The deadbolt lock for his front door has been unscrewed and is lying on a table.
The man takes Flores and Lamberg downstairs. The door of the first-floor apartment has been kicked off its hinges and stands tilted against the wall of the vestibule. The tenant is gone. The apartment isn’t in much better shape, but there are several piles of neatly folded laundry on the dirty couch.
Flores tells the man to arrange to have the apartment boarded up and asks Lamberg to write a report. Then he tells the man he’ll send detectives to investigate.
“I once found a wallet that contained $1,000,” says Flores. “I turned it in. That’s the kind of stuff you learn from your mom and dad.”
He’s driving slowly down the 2700 block of Washington, looking for a parking sign that’s been run down. Someone has called 911 about it. As he drives he shines his light along the street, but he doesn’t see the sign. He asks a few people sitting on their stoops if they know anything about it.
The people ask nervously, “Is there trouble? What’s the matter?” But they don’t really seem to want to know. They seem afraid to answer, yet afraid not to.
We cruise past Eckhart Park, then Union Park. “The best pinch of my life was here,” Flores says, then explains that he’d caught some armed robbers there one night right after a robbery–a rare occurrence. Everywhere are signs that say “Welcome to Daley Country,” leftovers from the convention.
The radio screams, “Man with a gun! Man on a roof with a gun!” We spin around and speed to Erie and Ashland. Some of the familiar faces from previous calls are already there, more follow. Flores pulls into an incredibly narrow alley and climbs on top of the squad car. A few minutes later everyone’s satisfied that no one’s on the roof, with or without a gun. Flores maneuvers the squad down the length of the alley, hitting branches and brushing garbage cans.
It’s near the end of the shift, about 10 PM, and the only calls on the radio concern traffic jams on Ashland caused by Mexican Independence Day celebrations. The radio voice keeps telling the officers to watch their “keys,” because when the button of a car’s radio is pressed down the dispatcher can’t communicate with the other cars.
Before calling it a night Flores drives back to the scene of the murder. No one’s there. And no more information has come in over the radio, though a carjacking at Popeye’s and some shootings west of the district may be related.
For a few days afterward I check the paper, especially the obituaries. But no one I read about could possibly be the man I saw shot. Then an officer investigating the murder tells me there won’t be a death notice. She says the murder victim was gay, and the guy hovering over him was his boyfriend, who’d come to the corner to meet him. A few days earlier the dead man had beaten up a gangbanger who’d taunted him about being gay. The gangbanger’s friends didn’t like one of their own being taken down by a gay guy, so when a couple of them saw him on the corner they shot him three times in the chest. “They’ll figure out who did it,” the officer says.
But the night of the murder, at the end of Flores’s shift, all that’s left at the scene are the three little tent-shaped cards. And the blood. It hasn’t dried up or puddled or evaporated or been washed away. Oddly, it’s formed into a pile that stands like a foamy dark red wave caught in a freeze-frame.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Miguel Flores photo by Jon Randolph.