Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the job...

Today's guest blogger is the author of On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department.

by Daniel P. Smith

My earliest memory revolves around crime.

It’s 1984 and I’m three-years-old. I walk into our South Side Chicago home to find the television gone, clothes tossed about, cabinets empty, and a white handkerchief on the living room floor. My brother looks at me. My mother cries. The basketball trophy I held in my hand, my first trophy, falls to the ground and shatters from its base.

The cops couldn’t prove it, but the handkerchief told us all we needed to know. My father robbed his own house. Three kids and ex-wife be damned.

*****

In June 2004, I began penning my first book. Inspired by my roots in a Chicago Police family, I wanted to explore the work-life juxtaposition Chicago’s officers face.

The Chicago Police world is one I knew well: four of my six uncles were cops, my estranged father was, and my only brother is—and for much of my life I couldn’t reconcile the public perception of officers—one that frequently labeled Chicago’s cops as lazy, corrupt, and prejudiced (titles some officers have certainly earned throughout the years)—with what I knew from my home life. With the exception of my father, the other men in my family who wore the Chicago Police star put their best effort forward each day for their families, communities, and city. They had their faults, but their passion for Chicago Police work and the city could not be mistaken.

Last year, On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department arrived, a non-fiction account of the lives, culture, and history of one of the world’s most famous (and infamous) law enforcement units. Gratefully for this young writer, On the Job has earned favorable reviews for its candor and sincerity, challenging the Hollywood stereotypes as well as what we think we know of cops. The book is far less blood and guts and far more heart and soul. And the truth is that real police work requires more heart and soul than just about any profession in America.

It’s easy to be pulled into the silver screen lore or CSI’s drama, but real cops often snicker at Hollywood portrayals of their work. Dirty Harry shoots the bad guy and walks into the sunset, right? Well, it doesn’t happen that way, particularly for the cops who reflect on their work in the realm of human relations. Police work consumes the soul as much as the hours on duty. It’s work that alters one’s view of the world as well as one’s perception of life’s fellow travelers. As soon as officers take that oath, they sacrifice a piece of themselves—perhaps their trust or faith or relationships suffering from the job’s constant tension. That’s a helluva price to pay for a civil service job. Any cop who says he or she’s the same as the day they entered the job is either: a.) lying; b.) not reflective; or c.) has never really been the PO-LICE. The job changes minds and souls and futures. It does not allow for stagnation.

*****

Ironically, the most chilling, forceful criminal event to infiltrate my life happened three years before I was born when a six-year-old boy named Tony Canzoneri went missing on the city’s West Side.

My mother always told me that my father’s downward spiral began when he found the Canzoneri boy, murdered and slashed under a set of basement stairs. Though my father was on a self-destructive path, which included alcoholism and the eventual abandonment of his family, the Canzoneri case accelerated his decline. He hit the bottle harder. He woke daily from nightmares. And he started plotting his own future.

Perhaps driven by his own mortality as well as the nightmares, my father left us. Though I’ve seen him in the 25 years since, I can’t say I’ve ever known my father or, to be truthful, wanted to know him. He remains unapologetic, defiant, and 1,000 miles away.

As I wrote On the Job, I wondered how my life would have been different if the Canzoneri boy had never gone missing and my father hadn’t discovered the boy’s tortured body? Would my parents have remained married? Might I have grown up with a father?

Over 30 years later, the case of Tony Canzoneri still impacts my life. It was the crime that defines my life.

*****

I suppose readers enjoy crime—both real and imagined, There’s certainly an abundance of literature out there on the topic. Truthfully though, I think there’s something else readers—even devout crime readers—enjoy even more. Call it sincerity or humanity or reflection, but it’s not the story of the crime that captivates us (though such descriptions can surely compel or intrigue us), but it’s the back story—the personalities, the motivations, the aftermath that truly capture our consciousness. I set about writing On the Job for the same reason so many of you pick up a book, open the cover, and offer your time to the voice speaking from those pages—curiosity.

I suppose I could’ve written solely about crime in On the Job: Jim’s shooting of the armed robber; Brian’s rookie year shootout with gang bangers in West Humboldt Park; or John’s discovery of murdered young girl named Miracle Moon. I suppose those tales alone might have been compelling enough to justify the $17.95 cover price. But for me, those tales alone failed. I wanted to know how the subsequent decades treated Jim; how—and why—Brian returned to work the next day and the next; how John changed as a father after Miracle Moon’s death.

*****

In the years since that 1984 robbery, I tried to understand my father. I wanted to love. I wanted to forgive. I invited him to Little League games and basketball games and sent him my report card in the mail.

Today, it’s been nearly 14 years since our last meaningful conversation. It’s complicated—like so many father-son relationships can be—but a piece of the silence rests in that night I returned home as a three-year-old to the scene of the crime. But if I just told you about that night, would it be enough? Wouldn’t you want to know what happened to him? What happened to me, that little red-headed boy with a broken basketball trophy?

*****

As for Tony Canzoneri, his mother, who was sexually assaulted by Tony’s murderer that December night, went on to remarry—and marry a Chicago cop no less. Together they had a child, naming him Daniel Patrick McIntyre. Like me, Danny played Little League baseball, went to school, and grew up to find his own calling. He is now a cop.


Upcoming Author Appearances for Daniel P. Smith
Weds, Feb. 25: Chicago Public Library’s Roden Branch at 7pm
Mon, March 30: LaGrange Park Public Library at 7pm
Thurs, April 23: Orland Park Public Library at 7pm

7 comments:

Steerpike said...

Outstanding piece of writing, Daniel, thank you for it. You can rest assured that I'll be picking up a copy of your book. It sounds both difficult and fascinating.

Corey Wilde said...

Wow. I'm hooked. I have to read this book.

Mark Combes said...

I second Corey's Wow....I'm speechless.

I'm a dopey sales guy and my experience with police officers has always been from a distance - or through a rolled down window as they have me sign the ticket. So I've always felt a little guilty writing about cops. Painting them as the bad guy. Or the guy with the white hat. I knew the job was so much more than anything I could imagine - and here, you've shown me that in spades. Thank you.

Diane said...

I was a civilian CPD employee for a few years and it was a real eye-opener to see the officers' daily work from the other side. I know I my own perceptions changed for the better. I can't wait to read this book.

Libby Hellmann said...

I just want to know.. how does one reconcile the obvious sensitivity and compassion of Dan Smith with a cop like Drew Peterson... anyone?

Michael Dymmoch said...

Peterson worked for a suburban department and was hired years ago, when most departments had less stringent requirements. Every organization has a few sociopaths. CPD has a few, had more (think Burge). Chicago is at least making a good faith effort to not hire misfits and to weed out those who slip past the tests and shrinks.

In any case, the salvation of the community is the watchfulness of the citizen. If we want good cops, we have to praise the good individuals and demand removal of those who aren't.

Tamale Chica said...

My boyfriend is a Chicago Policeman and has worked as one for over 20 years. I loved "On The Job" because the writing and the context of the stories are real. For anyone who ever wanted an inside glimpse into what it's like to be a Chicago Cop, this book is a must read.