In the Line of Fire

The police superintendent of Chicago Heights walks tall and steps on a few toes.

By Grant Pick

The bleachers at Comiskey Park are largely unfilled on this chilly night. But sitting in a clump beyond center field are several older men, a bunch of young kids, and Karla Osantowski, the chain-smoking, 40-year-old former police chief of south-suburban Chicago Heights–the first female top cop in Cook County.

Osantowski and the officers sitting with her are mentors to the kids, who go to Gavin Elementary School, which is in the middle of the Wentworth Gardens housing project on Chicago Heights’s predominantly black east side. “Look at these kids,” she says. “They are well behaved, not acting crazy, because we are one-on-one with them. We give them a feeling of being special in a world that, for them, isn’t so special.”

Darius, the kindergartner sitting next to Osantowski, is her new charge. Her first was Gregory (not his real name), a sixth-grader she worked with for over a year, but he recently moved down south because his older brother witnessed a gang murder and their mother wanted to protect the family from retaliation.

“Gregory was such a tough kid,” says Osantowski. “When I first started to mentor him he thought he was the baddest of the bad. And he hated white people.” She says Gregory was constantly breaking curfew and getting suspended from school for swearing. The principal, Margot Robinson, says he was disruptive in class.

Osantowski, then still Chicago Heights’s police chief, started attending Gregory’s basketball games. She took him out to eat at Denny’s and gave him clothes. Gradually they built up a rapport. Once Gregory won a pink and blue turtle as a prize at a fun park in Tinley Park and gave it to Osantowski. “I put it on the police radio in my car,” she says. “Though he wasn’t sure why I’d kept it, every time I gave him a ride somewhere he noticed the turtle. It obviously meant something to him.”

Robinson says that when Gregory was about to be written up for an infraction his first concern was that Osantowski would be disappointed in him. “I think that’s because he now had someone in his world to give him an extra boost and confirm his self-esteem–and whether it was a white woman or not made no difference.”

In May Gregory told Osantowski that there was a chance his mother would be moving the family away. “I told him that I was happy he would have a better life,” Osantowski says, “but I didn’t think the move was going to happen.” She bought him a mix of his favorite caramel and cheese popcorn so he could share it with his class. “The next thing I knew he was gone to Georgia,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “You know, a part of me got really attached to him because of the way I grew up.”

At 16, Osantowski says, she was a mouthy, pregnant dropout from the northwest-side Luther High School North. She married the marine who got her pregnant when he returned home on leave, but the marriage, which produced two daughters, went poorly. “It was always quite violent when he was around,” says Osantowski. After she filed for a divorce, which became final in 1980, he pushed her head through a window opening and then smashed the window above her. He also broke down her door and put a gun to her head. “It was psycho shit,” she says. “Men like him get worked up, and they use you as an excuse to work things out on.” Her ex-husband died last year.

Osantowski had worked for a while at Burger King, then went on public aid and ended up living in the Lathrop Homes housing project at Diversey and Clybourn. But she’d never forgotten the time when she was a teen that she saw a woman cop break up a fight between girl brawlers at a carnival. “I remember this cop being in charge of the situation, with the destiny of all us girls in the palm of her hand. What a powerful image!”

That image was enough to guide her back to school to get her GED, then to Loyola University, where she got a degree in criminal justice. Meanwhile, she also passed the Chicago police exam, but the city was in the middle of a hiring freeze. So she went on to law school at Chicago-Kent, graduating in 1988.

For five years, beginning in 1989, she served as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, prosecuting armed robbers, wife beaters, and police on the take at 26th and California and then in the Markham circuit court. “Karla was very vigorous, but she also had compassion,” says Judge Martin Gavin. “You know, a lot of young prosecutors would send their own mothers to jail. Karla was willing to listen to alternatives for offenders.”

In 1994 Osantowski, running as a Republican, failed in a race for judge, but that August she was named police chief of Chicago Heights by Mayor Douglas Troiani. “I had a reputation of being hard-nosed,” says Osantowski, “and they wanted a new image.” Understandably. Sam Mangialardi, who’d been a powerful deputy police chief, was then under indictment for racketeering, extortion, and aiding a drug conspiracy; he was found guilty and is now serving a ten-year sentence. Following a federal probe, 15 public officials–including five other officers and former mayor Charles Panici–were convicted.

The Illinois Police Training Board normally requires that police chiefs be police academy graduates, but it waived the requirement for Osantowski, provided she got 40 hours of instruction in using a weapon.

Her arrival was hardly applauded. “Karla came in here as a woman and as an outsider, and the guys had a negative reaction,” says Sam Angellotti, a department veteran who’s now community affairs director.

Ignoring prior policy, Osantowski began working in tandem with other law-enforcement agencies in the south suburbs and went all out in favor of community policing. “You had to stop in places and pass out business cards,” says Gerry Billups, then a watch commander. She established a satellite office next to Wentworth Gardens (two additional satellite offices have since been added in other neighborhoods). D.A.R.E. officers began spreading their antidrug message not only to older grammar-school children but to first- and second-graders. The department also raised money to send kids to camp and set up a “cadet” program for 16- to 20-year-olds interested in going straight.

Osantowski was truly hands-on, hugging members of the community, setting up the mentor program at Gavin herself, and hitting the streets wearing jeans and a bulletproof vest as she accompanied plainclothes officers on their nighttime strolls among drug dealers. “What you makin’ tonight–$5,000?” she asked the dealers. “I wonder what it would do for your business if I parked here all fucking night? What would your mother say?” The dealers would grit their teeth and close up shop, at least for a time–which pleased Osantowski. “They were aware of my presence, that I wasn’t someone holed up in a ivory tower somewhere.”

Last September Chicago Heights mayor Angelo Ciambrone elevated Osantowski from police chief to police superintendent and gave Billups her old job. She began doing administrative work, applying for grants and giving legal advice, but that didn’t stop criticism of her tenure as chief. Kevin Perkins, the alderman who represents the east side, still complains about her lack of background in police science and accuses her of having a nonconciliatory attitude toward his constituents. “That mentoring she does is swell and dandy,” he says, “but those kids still have to go back where they came from–and there the quality of life hasn’t improved.” Osantowski insists her programs address the concerns of Perkins’s constituents more than all his grandstanding. “What kids has he mentored?” she says. “What satellite offices has he set up?”

In 1995 Chicago Heights’s crime rate had soared, in part because Osantowski insisted that domestic-abuse charges be reported as assaults instead of “adjusted down” by officers. “But she didn’t do anything to combat domestic abuse,” complains Perkins. She counters that she secured a $478,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to establish a unit of four detectives and a court advocate to pursue abuse cases forcefully. “We will track these defendants down like the dogs they are,” she says.

Osantowski thinks Perkins’s hostility toward her began with the shooting death of Willie Ruffin Jr., a reputed drug dealer, by a Chicago Heights officer in September 1995, an incident that was subsequently ruled justified. “The alderman implied we were murderers, and I defended my officers to the hilt,” she says. Perkins says Osantowski didn’t respond to him and other black leaders immediately after the shooting; she claims he never tried to reach her.

Community affairs director Angellotti credits Osantowski with “restoring the credibility of the Chicago Heights police.” And Mayor Ciambrone is an ardent supporter. “Karla stands her ground,” he says. “She don’t take lip from no one.” Because of her work snaring grants for community policing and other projects, the Chicago Heights Police Department has ballooned from 78 to 93 officers. In fact, she was so successful Ciambrone recently abolished the superintendent’s job and made Osantowski the city’s grants administrator.

Ultimately Osantowski anticipates running for juvenile court judge, but this time she’ll run as a Democrat. For the present, she says, “God put me in Chicago Heights for a reason, and that’s to help women and children.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Karla Osantowski photo by Lloyd DeGrane.