By Michael Romain
Chief Tim Curry agreed to allow me the opportunity to ride along with him for a few hours last Friday. This idea was sparked by a MAPS (Maywood Alternative Policing Strategies) meeting that I’d observed. During the meeting, a few outspoken residents had the room in a frenzy as they complained about how Curry’s department was doing little to nothing to respond to citizens’ concerns. Some accused the department of leaking their information to criminals. Curry had gotten rather defensive, leading me to interpret his reaction as verification of the kind of scathing unresponsiveness they were complaining about.
This was until I spoke with the Chief for more than an hour afterward and he told me that the purpose of the MAPS meetings is not to recreate the setting of a Commission or Board meeting, but to provide a forum for which citizens can come up with self-policing strategies among themselves, with the occasional input and supplementary support of the police. Curry was intent on emphasizing that his defensiveness that night wasn’t ordinary and that he has a much better working relationship with the residents who regularly attend the MAPS meetings. During the meeting, Curry even polled the group, asking the attendees how many of them had his personal cellphone number. Most sheepishly raised their hands.
Afterward, he said that he’s handed out cell phones and video cameras to residents who’ve complained about the amount of drug and criminal activity on their blocks. When the residents would receive the equipment (thus transferring the burden of proof-gathering from the police to the residents themselves), Curry said that their vigilance would often times magically disappear.
“What happened to all of that activity that you were talking about?” he said rhetorically. Curry’s frustration seemed less with the fact that the residents were complaining than with many residents’ collective apathy and the cynicism that often accompanies it. Residents, he seemed to be saying, are many times quicker to complain about the police (often without understanding their tight resource constraints) than work with them.
“On any given night, there are 4-6 full-time police officers on the streets,” he said. During school days, practically the entire Maywood Police Department is out walking Proviso East students home. Add the resource constraint on top of the taint of corruption with which the Department is stigmatized and Curry and his officers have quite a burden on their backs.
“I’ve worked very, very hard to erase that stigma,” Curry said. “A lot of it stems from stuff that happened in the past. We have a lot of fresh faces on this department, though, and they know I don’t stand for that,” he said. I suddenly began to understand Curry’s frustration. “I ride my guys hard and they know if they’re not cutting it, I’ll replace them. But if I know that they’re doing the right thing, I’ll go to bat for them all the way,” he said. “And they know that, too.”
And so a ride-around was planned two weeks in advance for around 2:30 pm, about the time school lets out, to see what the Maywood Police Department has to deal with everyday, on top of regular calls they may receive while out walking the kids home.
Unfortunately, the Friday we scheduled was the last day of the school year and students were released well before 2:30. Little did I or Curry know how insignificant this scheduling conflict would prove to be with respect to the Chief’s intentions of illustrating his department’s constraints. That much would be well established before I even showed up. This is the first part of my account of that day.
By June 1st, rough video footage documenting a massive fight that occurred among high school students on Friday, May 31st, surfaced on Facebook. It had already been shared nearly 400 times, garnering almost as many ‘likes’ (profanity, names and faces have been blacked out):
Part I: Too Calm for Comfort
~2:30 pm – The Chief greets me in the station lobby. He’s in a rush. He directs me to follow him into his office. “You’re my shadow,” he says. On the way, we walk past a few officers dealing with a distraught woman who appears to be high. She’s irate, wildly complaining about a possible theft while she was out of town. I don’t know whether she voluntarily showed up at the station or was forcibly brought there by police.
The office is austere and rather ugly. The walls are painted a light blue. They clash with the floor’s blue, confetti-accented ceramic tiling. Curry doesn’t seem to have impressed much of his personality on the room save for a leather-bound Bible and a small transparent glass plate bearing the Chief’s name and a verse written above it — Proverbs 3:6: “In all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.”
I watch the Chief in silence as he types out an email to the Mayor and the Board about the big fight. “Anytime something big and significant happens, I have to email the Village Board and the manager,” he says.
“Today was the last day of school?” I ask. The Chief confirms that it is.
After he’s finished polishing the email message, he reads it aloud.
“Today, at approximately 9:30 am, as students were leaving school…” My mind drifts as he reads, catching only the most salacious bits of information. Upwards of 300 kids involved…10-15 arrested…3 sent to Loyola for minor injuries. The fighting began at the school and radiated as far west as 17th Avenue, pulsating all the way to Maywood Drive. As of yet, there is no known cause. Over 40 sheriff deputies and police officers from neighboring villages such as Oak Park and Westchester were deployed to the disturbance. Practically the entire Maywood Police Department is tied up dealing with the kids.
Curry tells me a harrowing story of his own encounter with a young girl whom he’d escorted home. The girl’s nose was bloodied and she appeared to have been involved in the fighting. By taking her to her apartment, the Chief thought he was protecting her from the crowd. A minute later, however, the girl returned to the fighting wielding two chef knives and running toward a crowd of about 100 kids. “I’m in a dilemma,” the Chief says as he recalls the experience. “What’s my dilemma?” he asks, putting me to the test. “Either risk getting stabbed yourself or watch the girl stab someone else,” I say.
Fortunately, a female officer blindsided the girl and authorities took her into custody. When I ask whether or not the fighting was gang-related, Curry says he isn’t sure. “Very few people we have in custody appear to be involved in a gang,” he says, which is a troubling indicator that perhaps this kind of mass aggression is a symptom of a troubling norm.
“The kids [at Proviso] have been so unruly that for the past several years, we’ve had to focus our entire resources on the problem and escort them home everyday just to maintain safety while students walk home. But then you get parents who don’t bring their children home who have a negative outlook as to how we treat their children when we walk them home,” Curry says.
Once the email is sent, we leave the office and head toward Curry’s all-black SUV.
~2:40 pm – Curry drives a block from the police station to meet a man who appears to be a detective about a personnel matter. The two talk for a few minutes before Curry returns to the SUV and drives back to the station. I stay in the vehicle while he goes inside.
~2:52 pm – “You didn’t want to observe roll call did you (roll is called at the beginning of each shift)?” he asks when he returns. I tell him that he shouldn’t alter his schedule on account of me. “Do what you’d do if I wasn’t around,” I tell him. It’s an impractical suggestion, but Curry seems intent on doing just this. For instance, he didn’t tell any of the officers who I am. The nondisclosure appears to go over rather well. Most of the officers I encounter simply nod when their boss introduces me, leaving me to guess who exactly they think I am. If any are puzzled or uncomfortable, they don’t show it.
Curry opts to skip roll call, as is his custom.
“Crime would hit us while officers were in the station for roll call, so we’d have to get creative,” he said. Typically, there’s an officer on the street during roll call in order to confound would-be criminals.
As we drive down Oak toward 1st Avenue, Curry says that he’s personally written two parking tickets today. This becomes a theme — the Chief, it appears, does all kinds of un-chiefly things on any given day. I suspect that at least part of this show of humility is rather exaggerated, despite his best efforts to ‘keep it real.’ But then I think back to his account of the girl accosting him with a knife and inquire silently how many other police chiefs would even put themselves in that situation.
The other factor that leads me to re-think my suspicion that Curry’s humility is something of an act is his personality — which may be among the most unassuming and laid-back on the entire force. He takes pride in how accessible he is, a merit that’s often premised on an unpretentiousness he seems to work hard to cultivate. While talking with him outside of Neighborhood United Church on 19th and Washington after the MAPS meeting described above, a young woman walking her kids approached us. “Hey Tim,” she said, without breaking stride. Another young man, who obviously knew Curry, moseyed up to us while eating a bag of chips before mumbling a few indecipherable words and walking on.
Curry is about average height, several inches under six feet. When he has them on, he sometimes wears his glasses low on his nose, a gesture that makes him look professorial, avuncular. The low-hanging glasses have the effect of softening a countenance that’s not very gruff to begin with. Although Curry has to at least be in his fifties or closely approaching them (I never asked his age, but am assuming from his 28 years on the force), he has the face of someone much younger. And the sincerity (at least as it appeared to me during the times I’ve been around him) of a twenty-something-year-old rookie. It means more than it appears on the surface when I say that he really does seem to want to do the right thing, to want to ‘come correct,’ if you will. And he manages to exude this intention without coming off as self-righteous or unreasonably pure.
At one point on our ride-around, while Curry was observing another officer during a routine traffic stop, the driver in the offending vehicle, pulled over for driving in a parking lane, noticed the Chief across the street. The ticketing officer’s voice came over the dispatch. “He says he knows the Chief.” Without pause, Curry laughed, clicked and dispatched back: “Well, if he knows the Chief he wouldn’t be saying he knows the Chief. I don’t play that” he said in jest, but not jokingly. He was serious.
Curry shows an eagerness (but not an overeagerness) to be open and honest which leads me to believe that he would’ve said the same thing if I weren’t with him. However, he doesn’t seem to be above waiving off traffic tickets. There are rules and then there are loyalties and Curry doesn’t appear too rigid a devotee of either side — all and all, a rather healthy personality. “I know Obama,” Curry said (meaning: ‘it aint happenin’). We both laughed as he drove away from the scene, but not before he peered to see if he indeed knew the person in the car. A quick pause. “I don’t know him!” he said.
~2:56 pm – “Hey fellas, come here!” Curry drives up on a group of young men loitering and defying the Village’s ‘No Sagging’ ordinance outside of Maywood Plaza on 11th and Madison. The boys show no reverence, at one point glaring at me through the truck. “Why you taking pictures?” one of them says as he walks off.
~3:02 pm – As we’re driving south on North Maywood Drive, we hear fireworks. “We’re still a long way off from the 4th,” Curry says, driving toward the sound. It turns out to be nothing. “Dispatch doesn’t know I’m out here doing this,” he says, addressing some of the complaints that he hears from residents about the lack of a police presence. It’s a charge to which he takes slight offense.
Curry’s typical retort is that some residents will complain about the police not being on the streets and, in the same breath, complain about a parking ticket they were issued. He says that a lot of what his department does, particularly the positive stuff, goes unnoticed. Regarding his response to the fireworks, he says, “It’s service that doesn’t go in the books.” According to the Chief, the Maywood Police Department booked about 27,000 service calls last year.
~3:04 pm – As we’re driving on 16th and Madison, Curry spots a guy talking on a cell phone in a red pickup truck parked out in front of an apartment known for drug traffic. Curry slows to a stop. “What are you doing here?” he says. The man in the pickup truck immediately takes offense, which is understandable. “What do you mean what am I doing here?” Curry and the man go back and forth. One feeling slighted and demeaned by the cop’s assumption of criminality and the other alarmed by the man’s aggression. It would seem that both have relatively reasonable justifications for their behavior. I would be at least annoyed, if not a bit outraged, if I were the man, whose mere presence is under suspicion; and yet, if I were Curry, the man’s presence outside of the drug apartment would touch off all kinds of police instincts. It’s a common dilemma that doesn’t always end reasonably.
When the man gets out of the truck, I reach for the door handle. “Don’t shoot me,” the man says to Curry, extending his arms, walking slowly toward the truck. “Would you invest in Starbucks ten years ago if you knew what it would be now?” Curry and I both nod in confusion, both of us perplexed and disarmed.
“This is what I was doing,” the man says. He hands the Chief three sample packages of Organo Gold coffee. “I sale this,” he says, before going into his pitch. The man is part of a crew doing renovations on the apartment building. “I’m working on this building, but I can’t come down a lot, because they like to play cowboy.” He tells us to go online to his website before anxiously jogging back to his truck. “Hold on, don’t shoot me,” the man says. His refrain takes on the hilarity of a standup comic’s routine. The man returns with a business card.
“Good luck with your business,” Curry says. “If I like your product I’ll give you a call” (one of the rare moments during my time with the Chief in which something he said signaled my B.S. detector). As we drive away, Curry says that he encounters that kind of confrontation all the time. Most times, however, it doesn’t end that well.
~3:10 pm – We’re riding down 13th and Randolph. There are children out playing catch, running the sidewalks. “This has got to be one of the most peaceful Friday [afternoons] I’ve ever seen,” he says. It’s unusually placid to be so warm, but instead of putting him at ease, Curry takes it to be a potential foreboding. He’s still on an emotional high from this morning’s frenzy at Proviso. “So now, I’m still anticipating something….Where did all those kids go?” VFP