Chicago's finest: A new book on the city's fallen officers

By Elizabeth Taylor, Tribune literary editor
Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Sitting in a meeting room filled with photographs of former chairmen of the Chicago City Council's Finance Committee, the committee's current chairman, Edward M. Burke, alderman of the 14th Ward for the last 38 years, talked like an author.

He and Thomas J. O'Gorman, historian-in-residence of the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago and a City Hall speechwriter, reflected on their new book, "End of Watch" (Chicago's Books Press, $50), full of photographs and profiles intended to bring honor to the 534 Chicago police officers killed in the line of duty from 1853 to 2006.

Counting these deaths was not as straightforward as one might imagine; Burke and O'Gorman started with the standard Police Department history but uncovered an array of characters whose deaths had eluded that count. Each death is reconstructed from police records and newspaper accounts, and the authors discussed with Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor their determination to establish respect for all the slain officers:

Q: Why do you and the Chicago Police Department differ on the number of police officers killed in action?

TO: In the lobby of the police headquarters at 35th and Michigan, the actual stars of the line-of-duty officers who have been retired are actually in a very beautiful glass case. And when we began this project, we began with that official list. . . .

Then exactly a year ago, the Chicago police, in preparation for the new memorial wall, released the names of 78 more police officers who had died in the line of duty. . . . Many of them were men that had "keeled over" with a heart attack or such while chasing a criminal, and, thus, hadn't been properly recognized. And then through our own scholarship, we found 12 that maybe slipped through the cracks between 1864 and especially through the 1930s. Many of them were motorcycle policemen for the Park District. So when you add all those figures together, that is where 534 comes from.

Q: Was it challenging to define the scope of "on duty"?

EB: It is safe to say that throughout history, the rhetoric of politics played a role in who was going to be a line-of-duty death and who wasn't. At least here we have a scholarly and independent evaluation of who was and who was not killed in the line of duty.

I don't know that there is anyone volunteering to be killed in the line of duty, by the way. But I do think that their families are entitled to have appropriate honors attached to their relatives' names in history.

Q: Who has the power to determine whether someone was killed in the line of duty?

EB: The municipal code of Chicago places the authority to determine what is a line-of-duty death in what is called the Police and Fire and Death Benefit Fund, which I chair. And over the history, it has really depended who was the police lieutenant on who was recognized and what was and wasn't a line-of-duty death. And since Supt. Phil Cline has become superintendent, there is a much broader, much more humane attitude about who should be included.

Q: Has a more-generous understanding evolved about who should be considered as killed in the line of duty?

TO: That is a fairly modern understanding. If you go back, there was very little financial reimbursement to families of officers killed, particularly at the beginning of the 20th Century.

EB: And when I use the word "politics," it is in a more traditional sense than the usual "p" for politics. And just as Constable [James] Quinn may not have been honored because of the prejudice against the Irish immigrant that existed, it may well be that same reason that the elected Police and Fire Commission put the rap on Mrs. O'Leary, because she was a woman and an Irish Catholic, and a convenient scapegoat in 1871. . . . And it wasn't until a few years ago that, at my suggestion, the City Council finally set the record clear. And we adopted a resolution stating clearly that she was not the one responsible for the fire in 1871.

TO: I really do have to commend Ald. Burke on this. He is a great student of Chicago history and he knows good history. I mean, no independent writer could ever have written this book. I am not saying the police would have denied access to [records], but you have to know how to use the tools available to you. And if you don't have those linkages, and you don't have that entree, I believe that certain areas of this would never have been done.

EB: And some Ph.D. candidate for a degree in criminology or such may look at this book, see these statistics and pose a question like: "Why was Chicago so seemingly violent with respect to loss of life and line of duty? Why didn't other cities experience this? . . . What is responsible for that remarkable spike in the graph in the '20s and '30s that showed 16 cops per year were being killed in the line of duty?"

It is just remarkable. Why is it that 534 are killed in the line of duty in Chicago, 711 in New York, but New York was four times the size of Chicago? But that number, 711, even includes all the officers that were killed in the World Trade Center incident.

Q: Why do you think that is?

EB: I don't know. Was it that in the '20s the disregard for Prohibition laws led to a sense of lawlessness? Was it the fact that Chicago had a "buffoon" as a mayor for three terms? Did Bill Thompson, who threatened to punch [Britain's] King George in the nose, [preside over] the most corrupt regime or administration in American municipal history? Was it poverty? Joblessness? Despair? Lack of hope? Was it disrespect that was born from the labor unrest that occurred when cops were called upon to be strikebreakers for industrialists?

Maybe a candidate for a Ph.D. at the U. of Chicago would want to look at this. Perhaps someone will look at this and think to examine it. Why not?

And in the '60s and '70s, you see that same spike again. And then, we didn't have the same joblessness or depression. But you did have unrest over the Vietnam War. You had college campuses in open rebellion. And, again, that spike occurs.

In 1956 in Chicago, policemen used their own cars. Their equipment consisted of a .38-caliber revolver and a police star. They had no radio. They had no body armor. They had only their wits and their courage. And when you think about it, policing hadn't developed in 100 years. In 1956 there were 35 police districts and there was one police car per district.

TO: The most spectacular technological advance in policing in Chicago was in the early 1880s, when they put these boxes around the city. The cop would go there and connect to the station and could say, "Riot, robbery, murder, send this or that to help." That was revolutionary.

EB: And your organization played a huge part of the advancement of policing in Chicago when Col. [Robert] McCormick agreed to permit police calls to be broadcast over WGN Radio during regular programming. So listeners would be listening to "The Barn Dance Show," and suddenly a voice would break in and say, "Calling all cars, calling all cars. . . . " And then they'd go back to the regular programming.

Q: Did you know any of those killed in the line of duty?

EB: I did. I worked with some of these police officers. As chairman of the Committee on Finance, part of my responsibility is to care for the police and firemen who were killed in the line of duty. And put a face on a system, so they can call me if they feel their loved one is not getting the kind of care he/she is entitled to. And, frankly, I feel they are entitled to Mercedes Benz kind of care, not the Chevrolet of care.

Q: What made you decide on the title?

EB: In police duty, your tour of duty is called "on watch." When you are off watch you are off your tour of duty. We thought, then, that "End of Watch" would be an appropriate title.

I keep seeing this picture that shows the family of [slain officer] John Blyth leaving St. Adrian Church. And in a certain sense it puts all of what we say in here into an image. The grief, the stoicism. Perhaps the pride. The children who are suddenly facing the loss of a parent. The spouse who has to struggle on financially, and lack of a partner to raise these kids. So there is a lot of, one might say heroism here. Not just in the people who lost their lives. But in the families and victims of these losses.

Go to chicagotribune.com/burke for a video of literary editor Elizabeth Taylor talking with Edward Burke and Thomas O'Gorman about police officers killed in the line of duty.

Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company

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