On Friday, August 5, almost a month after the deadly tube and bus bombings in London, someone left a green suitcase on the el platform at North and Damen. An officer at the scene radioed in a request for a supervisor and described the unattended piece of luggage, answering the dispatcher’s specific questions.

“I heard that and was like, ‘Oh my God, why did you just do that?'” says a cop who was on patrol at the time and who wishes to remain anonymous. “My partner was like, ‘What’s the big deal?'”

The big deal, according to this cop, a combat veteran, was that the officer clearly had been looking at the suitcase while describing it; if the suitcase had contained a bomb, he says, the officer at the scene and everything around him could have been blown to smithereens: “When you’re standing near an explosive, a radio transmission can produce an electrical current that could set off the blasting cap.”

Although the Chicago Police Department maintains that police officers have undergone “extensive” counterterrorism training since 9/11, the combat veteran says everything he knows about counterterrorism he learned from the military–unless you count what he learned in a one-hour police department lecture on “street survival” that covered how to handle “the KKK, anarchists, and animal-rights activists.”

Since 2003 Chicago has received more than $65 million in federal funding through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative to address “equipment, training, planning, and exercise needs.” According to Monique Bond, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, about $22 million has gone to the city’s first responders–$12.7 million to the fire department and $9.7 million to the police department. The remainder went to OEMC for initiatives that focus on “mitigation and prevention of attacks.”

With its funds, the police department has bought new weapons, replaced old equipment such as outdated gas masks, developed networks and databases to improve intelligence gathering and information sharing, and implemented “terrorism readiness” training for recruits at the police academy. It has also held various training exercises, such as a four-day drill at which a jet crash was simulated and participants learned about distributing medicine in the wake of a bioterrorism attack. But according to the combat veteran, patrol officers by and large have not been invited to counterterrorism drills. “They were for managers and focused on organizational skills,” he says. Police spokesperson David Bayless says that while it’s true the four-day drill was intended to “familiarize top-line decision makers with how to communicate across federal, state, and local lines,” they did receive some “support from patrol officers,” and that everyone on the force has received some level of training–through video streaming or drills or at conferences. But “it’s hard to quantify how much.”

By contrast, New York City’s police department has transformed itself in the four years since 9/11, assigning a thousand officers to work full-time on counterterrorism, according to a recent New Yorker article. It has also sent officers overseas in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Israel, Madrid, and London, simulated chemical attacks, provided all of its officers with basic hazmat training, and begun monitoring jihadist Web sites and chat rooms.

“The typical officer on the street in Chicago has little or no training in terrorism or weapons of mass destruction,” insists the combat veteran. While Bayless maintains that the “best training these guys have received has been in the last month or so in response to what happened in London,” it was only last week that the combat veteran was worrying about a patrol officer inadvertently helping a terrorist set off a bomb. A police department spokesperson, who suggests the combat veteran might have gotten a false impression of the August 5 incident since he wasn’t at the scene, points out that training is “evolutionary.”

The combat veteran is hopeful that it’s about to evolve into something more serious. He recently learned that the department is creating a Terrorism Awareness and Response Academy. Scheduled to open in the fall, it will train every police officer in identifying and responding to possible terrorist threats. “This sounds like a good start,” he says. “It’s definitely about time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.