This story is part of the Marshall Project’s “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” series. In 15 direct-to-camera testimonies, this collection of videos gives voice to Chicagoans affected by the justice system. Watch the videos at themarshallproject.org/chicago.
Bill Dorsch joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970, made his way into the detective rank, and stayed on the job until 1994. That was the worst year in the city’s history for homicides. Though he could have kept working, Dorsch retired, in large part, he says, because his colleagues became increasingly hostile to him after he blew the whistle on misconduct by Detective Reynaldo Guevara. Since leaving the department, Dorsch has worked as a private investigator and has helped exonerate almost two dozen people convicted in cases built by Guevara. He spoke with the Reader about what he did on the job and what the job did to him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, Jefferson Park. During my childhood [it] was pretty much crime free except for a few very significant crimes, and one of them was a well-known case, the murder of three young boys—Tony and John Schuessler and another boy named [Robert] Peterson. I was friends with the Schuessler boys.
Why did you become a police officer?
I was working at a stock brokerage downtown and had been there about two years, and I realized it wasn’t a place for me. There were others in my neighborhood that were becoming policemen, perhaps that influenced me. Once I did get into it I enjoyed every day. I was assigned out of the academy to the 20th District in the Uptown area. I went from a short time in uniformed patrol into the tactical units. Then I went to gang crimes and then to the detective division.
Did the job conform to your expectations?
It can be repetitive boredom every day until someday everything blows up right in front of you. I responded to crimes of violence. It was a lot of guns, a lot of narcotics. I had a lot of friends who were injured and some were killed on the job . . . I had a rude awakening. I came from that lily-white, crime-free area, and I quickly learned of who the bad elements were and how to combat them.
What influence did your work have on your views on race?
None, honestly . . . I didn’t judge people by their race. If I arrested a person and he was white or Black or Hispanic, that’s not why he was arrested. I understood a lot of these kids didn’t have a choice, they became gang members because of geography. You were being identified by other gang members as the enemy because you were born on one street.
Do you think the city itself made the problem worse?
I didn’t see the city as the detriment. As a child, I knew: clean up your room. I had chores to do and responsibilities and taking care of things in the family. My dad was a disabled vet from WWII who’d lost his right arm, but he worked for the U.S. Treasury Department and on his salary he could feed and educate six children. It was tough but we never went hungry. My father couldn’t do some things, and I was the oldest male in the house and I had to help him. In the community you have to give something back. You just can’t take from the community. . . . Even when I was down and out and feeling bad I knew it was my responsibility to make things better.
So you blame the community?
I’ll tell you one thing, as a homicide detective working in the worst areas of the city, the Hispanic or Black ghetto areas, I was always amazed that you’d have a young man shot and killed and we’re trying to solve the crime and never get a phone call from the family saying, “What’s going on? Have you gotten any closer to closing the case?” It was rare that we’d get an inquiry.
If you got a brother shot and killed down the street, you probably know who was involved. There’s a fear within the young men in the Black and Hispanic communities of being identified as snitches, and they would be obviously in fear of reprisal.
How did the drive to clear cases, to have good statistics for bosses to report, affect your work?
I remember many times in tactical units making a good burglary or robbery arrest and the detective division would use that arrest to clear other cases, other burglaries or robberies that had occurred. Sometimes it’d be ridiculous the number of robberies they’d clear based on the one arrest we made.
Talk to any beat cop today and if he’s honest with you he’ll tell you: When we get sent to a crime we know what the case reporting and charging should be. They write the report and the sergeant will say, “We don’t want a robbery, turn this down to a theft.” So now when [Eddie] Johnson and every superintendent go up to do their news conference they can say crime is down. You’ve got cases lingering where guys were shot but it’s not classified as a murder, it’s still under investigation so it’s not added to the statistics.
Are you saying the murder rate that’s reported is lower than it actually is?
I’d say so, maybe by about a dozen but still.
Should the city worry about the damage to its reputation from having too many open cases?
No. The amount of murders is a reflection on the population, not on the Police Department. It’s a reflection on the people in the community and their perception of right and wrong and how they live their lives. I don’t know that the job is ever gonna get easier. I think you should be honest about the statistics, about where they occur.
How did the job affect your mental health?
I’ve had several shootings in my career, and only the first time did I get asked if I wanted to go see a department psychiatrist. And I went one time and that was it. I knew what my job was, I knew what the dangers were.
Did it affect your relationships?
I didn’t even want to tell people I’m a policeman. My closest of friends knew, but I didn’t want to bring the job home. Left it at work. I didn’t want to traumatize my kids. There was a significant amount of drinking between some officers. I wasn’t one of them. If you’re on the job long enough you think the only people who understand you are other policemen.
Do you believe that? Are you a subscriber to the idea of a “thin blue line”?
The things that happen out there you can’t believe. I’m a young patrolman in the 20th District. We get assigned to a domestic disturbance. [The victim] has marks and we know the guy needs to go to jail. She’s in the parking lot, sitting in their car, and he looks at her and says, “Bitch, wait until I get out of jail. You think you got beat now? I’ll beat your ass when I come out.” She puts her car in gear and floors it and intentionally crashes into a telephone pole and kills herself. Policemen see this stuff . . . I was able to push it aside daily. I tried to.
Do you feel it’s hurt your reputation with old friends or colleagues from the department to work in the wrongful conviction sphere?
Definitely. I’m not looked at as I was before, I’m the bad guy now. Since 2011 I’ve testified over a dozen times in court and in depositions. I’ve probably gotten over 20 people out of prison who are innocent, and I’m just as proud of that as the good arrests I made. Unfortunately, I guess I’m the only one that challenged [Guevara], and by doing that I challenged the whole organization.
Has the ostracism been worth it?
I know right from wrong. I couldn’t perceive what good you did by putting an innocent man in jail for something he didn’t do. I know it’s the perception of some officers: We know he’s a bad guy, so we’re gonna slam him on this [other thing]. That’s not justice, that doesn’t work for me. The case of the Schuessler boys being killed in 1955 and the real offender not being arrested until ’94—that’s justice. Maybe you never solve it, but who did you help by locking up the wrong guy? You think the family feels better knowing you locked up the wrong guy? v