By Mike Sula
Any job deserves the tools to do it well, and Vilma Colom believes that includes the job of “conservator of the peace.” Says the 35th Ward’s alderman, “As a single Hispanic female I have been in situations where if I didn’t have a firearm in my home or in my car I could have been confronted with something I would not have been able to handle. We had a situation about a month ago where three men who were intoxicated were throwing glass bottles at people and threatened a woman. If I wouldn’t have had the gun in my glove compartment I wouldn’t have felt safe in stopping and helping out.”
Now Colom’s peace of mind is threatened by Springfield. If enacted, Senate Bill 1571 will deny aldermen, mayors, village trustees, and other elected officials the right to carry guns by virtue of their office. Not that there’s any law that flat-out says they can now. But a nebulously worded state statute on the books for over a century empowers these public servants to detain “all persons who break the peace or are found violating any municipal ordinance or any criminal law of the State” and “to exercise all other powers as conservators of the peace prescribed by the corporate authorities.” For decades pols have read this as a right to conceal and carry.
Chicago–the city with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the gun industry–issues new council members a six-pointed star and permission to back it up with firepower. It’s a privilege nobody much paid attention to until Dorothy Tillman (Third Ward) whipped out a gat during a ward-remapping brawl in 1991, and that commotion died down quickly. The issue resurfaced six years later, when the General Assembly changed the law to require conservators of the peace–a term that appears nowhere else in state law–to undergo 400 hours of training, including 40 hours of weapons instruction, by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board. “We weren’t overwhelmed by anyone wanting to do it,” says Pat Vaughan, the board’s deputy director.
Without this training, said the new law, conservators of the peace could not make arrests. But otherwise the law still said nothing about firearms, a silence some gun toters were pleased to read as continued consent. (The city interprets a home rule provision in state law to exempt aldermen from firearms training.)
Last December a large contingent of Chicago aldermen and constituents traveled by bus to Springfield to lobby the General Assembly on behalf of the Safe Neighborhoods Act, which included the divisive provision making the unlawful use of a weapon (UUW) a felony. Ed Petka, a Republican senator from Plainfield, assailed some of the visitors as hypocrites. “It seems to me that people who are elected should enjoy no greater rights than the individuals that they serve. People who are attempting to make felons out of individuals for carrying a firearm should be subjected to the same penalties themselves.”
So in January Petka introduced Senate Bill 1571. It says that elected officials “shall not be deemed peace, police, or law enforcement officers and do not have any authority by virtue of holding any of those offices or by virtue of being conservators of the peace to possess, carry, or use any firearm.”
Petka’s cosponsor is Robert Molaro, a Chicago Democrat who supports the Safe Neighborhoods Act. When the senate unanimously passed 1571 in late February, Molaro’s phone began to ring. “I will not name the aldermen,” he said. “But I got a lot of irate calls yesterday from aldermen upset that I would take away this so-called perk.”
During the senate debate, only one official voice from the city was raised in dissent. Alderman William Beavers of the Seventh Ward didn’t actually testify, but he filed a witness slip stating his opposition. Beavers, one of three former cops on the City Council, says he doesn’t carry a piece but he appreciates having the option to. “The statute didn’t just say you could carry a gun,” he says. “It considered you a peace officer where you could make arrests and so forth. Well, how can you be a peace officer if you ain’t got no gun?”
Petka’s bill is undoubtedly doomed in the house, where Democrats attached to it the UUW felony provision that Republicans abhor. But what if it did become law? How many aldermen would have to mothball their artillery? We called all 50 Chicago aldermen. Four–Colom, Shirley Coleman (16th), Bernie Hansen (44th), and Ray Frias (12th)–admitted they pack heat, if only occasionally. Some never called back. But Colom and Coleman both estimated that at least half the council carries a gun.
“I think it’s important for us to be able to carry a firearm, but I don’t think we should do the job of the police department,” says Colom, who says she paid a state trooper to teach her how to use her roscoe. “Because we deal with a lot of stuff that’s related to the law, we should be trained to use it.”
Like Colom, Shirley Coleman relies on her rod for personal security. “Being a single mother, I’m here at my office a lot alone,” she says. “And unlike the mayor, we don’t have 24-hour security. The right for firearms is an added insurance.” But is her situation somehow different from that of all the other single mothers who can’t carry a gun? “Well, yeah, I think with the public exposure, with the stances that I’ve taken on different issues. I mean, I was the alderman speaking out against a serial killer who was living in my area. So yes, I think there is a very distinct difference.” Coleman says she took 40 hours of firearms training from a private security company.
These days, says Bernie Hansen, who used to be a sheriff’s deputy, he carries a gun only when he gets threats. But in the early 80s he was known for cruising Broadway and Belmont before dawn in his Lincoln, posing as a john in order to bust prostitutes. “Without that power I would not have been able to clean up the area I represent,” he says. “Without that opportunity to be able to conserve the peace and to know that if I got into a situation that called for defending myself with a deadly weapon it would have been very interesting as to whether or not I would have done it. I had the windows of my car broke out with a shotgun and threats on my life.”
“I talked to most of my colleagues in regards to this, and a lot of them don’t carry,” says Ray Frias, a former Chicago tactical officer. “Only those that have a strong anticrime agenda and are consistently confronting gangbangers. It depends on the alderman and what area you represent. Now, in the 12th Ward there are some areas that are gang infested, and if you’re gonna confront gangbangers you’d better be armed, because if you’re not you’re foolishly risking your life. Because these kids, they have absolutely no value for human life.” Frias says he made an arrest two months ago when he caught a gangbanger tagging the building across the street from his office.
He says it’s a mistake to take guns away from aldermen, but “it wouldn’t hurt to have aldermen undergo a firearms training course, especially nowadays with the semiautomatics. You have to really be competent in handling a semiautomatic.” In any event, Frias says that as the law stands only he, Beavers, and Ed Burke (another ex-cop) are legally allowed to make arrests. “That doesn’t preclude you as a citizen from detaining an individual who you reasonably suspect of committing a crime,” he says. “So you can still detain an individual, [but] you cannot effect that arrest.”
Whether they carry or not, a few aldermen like to keep people guessing. One of them has no gun but wonders, “Why would I want anyone to know that?” Ed Smith (28th), who wrote a novel, Love the Town Couldn’t Stop, that ends with the heroes gunned down by racists, won’t say if he carries. “I can live with the law no matter what it is,” he asserts ambiguously. Mike Wojcik (30th) tells a ripping tale of bluff. “There was a time I was in Kosciuszko Park and a guy took two shots at me,” he says. “The guy shot at some kids so I chased him through the park. I didn’t have a gun then. I was lucky because I had to make a calculated decision on what to do. I knew he had the gun and I knew he wasn’t afraid to shoot it. And I didn’t want him to know I didn’t have a gun because if he knew I didn’t have a gun he probably would have killed me. So I kind of pretended like I had a gun in the waistband and I chased him through the park and every time he went to pull, you know, to draw, I pretended like I was gonna draw and then he would turn around. I kept about 30 feet from him the whole time until he hit the alleys. Then when he went around the corner there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t have chased him any further because he might have killed me.”
Wojcik thinks Senate Bill 1571 needs to be amended. “You know, realistically, not everybody is 230 pounds like me. I would say today that being an elected official is probably one of your more dangerous professions. You know, some people are more vocal than others. And people who are more vocal tend to be more targets for cranks, you know?”
Thomas Allen (38th) knows. In 1995 a retired schoolteacher he was fighting in housing court tried to hire a hit man to “make him go bye-bye” with a hatchet. (The “hit man” was wearing a wire.) But Allen still doesn’t carry a gun. “If someone’s gonna kill ya, they’re gonna kill ya,” he reasons.
Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) takes a similarly karmic view. “I’m a God-fearing man and I don’t believe in guns or carrying a gun,” he says. “I believe if anything happens to me, that’s God’s will. So I’m not worried about that kind of stuff.” Burnett once received a call from a constituent who threatened to kill him if he voted for a cable tax ordinance. Burnett voted for it anyway and the man called again and promised to finish the alderman off on ward night. The man showed up and signed in and was arrested. He was unarmed. “Someone could be just crazy like that guy,” says Burnett. “He was no harm to me. He was just talking like that. What if he would’ve come in and talked crazy and I had a gun and he leaped at me or something? I probably would have pulled it out and shot him. And it would have been unnecessary. So I never want to be in that position, where I think I have to defend myself by hurting someone else.”
Burnett says that after he voted for an antiloitering ordinance, a bunch of unhappy gangbangers showed up at his ward office. “So now I wear my badge and make it visible, even though I don’t have a gun, just to give them the impression. Sometimes I think aldermen should have the alternative if they want to.”
Though most claim not to need it, few aldermen seem ready to surrender the right to tote iron. One of the few spoke anonymously. “I think it’s a joke that aldermen can carry guns. I use a rule–‘Don’t ever carry unless you’re willing to kill somebody.’ Because there’s no point in carrying a gun unless you’re willing to use it. Look, man, I close down bars, I lock up gangbangers, I report drug houses, and all that stuff. But if you do it right and you have community support, you’ll have the fire wall around you that gives you a comfort zone. Is there gonna be a lunatic out there that kills an alderman one day? Probably. Is a gun gonna save that alderman? Probably not.”
“I don’t think that we should be passing the Safe Neighborhoods Act and trying to implement policies and practices that retain unusual kinds of privileges,” says Mary Ann Smith (48th). “I think we’re working toward creating a society in which no one should need a weapon. I have my wit. My education. That’s about it.”
On the other hand, Arenda Troutman (20th) doesn’t carry a gun, said an aide, but if she did the General Assembly might have to pry it from her cold, dead fingers: “To restrict the rights of peacemakers goes against some of her views as alderman,” the aide explained. “The alderman is definitely not in favor of this bill. She has adamantly gone on the warpath to try and persuade lawmakers not to pass this bill.”
Jesse Granato (First) thinks 1571 is petty retaliation for the city’s aggressive support of the UUW felony provision. “This is a revenge technique because we were down in Springfield trying to put the Safe Neighborhoods Act into place,” he says. “It’s kind of like, ‘You aren’t gonna tell us what to do. We’ll show you.'”
He thinks an alderman’s job is more dangerous than ever. “We enacted the antigang loitering ordinance,” he says. “We’re gonna be partly responsible for determining where these hot spots are. We’re gonna be targets of gangs and all that now. We asked the state legislature to pass the gun bill and they can’t do it. We’ve done our part. I’m challenging them to do their part. If they think taking guns away from city councilmen is important, that’s fine. We know where their priorities are then.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.