18th DIstrict TAC Unit
From the I.P.S.N. Archives: Spring 1996, The elite, Tactical Units of the Chicago Police Department are among the most highly trained, street-savvy police officers in the nation. The following article, originally published in 1996, takes a closer look at the TAC Officers of the 18th District, who cover Chicago’s famed Gold Coast and North Side nighclub district. Since this article appeared in the I.P.S.N., Lieutenant Antonacci has left the department and is now attached to the Cook County State’s Attorney as Deputy Chief of the Trial Support Division.
by Richard Lindberg
The changes that have overtaken the Chicago Avenue 18th District in the last 40 years are deep and profound. Once upon a time not so long ago, a reporter for a Chicago newspaper who had seen it all, dubbed this Gold Coast neighborhood brushing up against the slums just west of Wells Street Honky Tonk U.S.A. – then designated as the 35th District before O.W. Wilson began the process of closing down police stations that had outlived their usefulness. In those halcyon days of yore, East Chicago Avenue was awash in B-girl joints, trendy nightclubs like the Trade Winds Cafe, Mr. Kelly’s, and the Happy Medium. On any given night the lock-up at the old East Chicago Avenue station was filled to overflowing with ladies of the evening, eager to serve a clientele of out-of-town businessmen and suburban thrill seekers. Some still do, but the hooker trade has fall off in recent years.
In those days, Chicago Police Districts corresponded to the geographic boundary lines established for the city wards, thus allowing the aldermen to perpetuate their richest source of political clout. East Chicago Avenue was a controlled district – and it had been for many years, going back before the dawn of this century.
The coppers who worked there knew exactly where they derived their clout: 42nd Ward Committeeman John “Botchy” Connors, his bagman Eddie Sturch, and the phalanx of syndicate hoodlums who ruled Rush Street. “Honky Tonk U.S.A.” was wide open and its most notorious Captain, one Thomas Harrison was forced to resign in disgrace when his longstanding connections to these unsavory characters became a public issue in 1949.
Tommy Harrison, Sturch, Connors, and a parade of hookers, call girls, political bagmen, and all the colorful denizens have since moved on. The Chicago Avenue District is different now. The bookies still take bets on Sunday afternoon football games and the call-girl rings are still being flushed out of the high-rise apartments but the syndicate presence, as we once knew it to be, is diminished. It has changed for the better according to two of the most knowledgeable, street-wise police officers – Lieutenant James M. Antonacci and George S. Papagiannis, one of five sergeants assigned to the 18th District Tactical unit.
Papagiannis, a 30-year veteran who came on the job in July 1966, remembers when Eighteen still retained the flavor of its former times. “They used to call the girls who worked in the joints down here B-girls,” he recalls. “The Chestnut Lounge over on Wabash Avenue was the last place in our district where you could find B-girls. It closed in ‘82 or ‘83. Urban renewal has struck with a vengeance down here. What were once flop houses and single room occupancy (SRO) dives are today sold as luxury condominiums to millionaires.”
If political boss “Botchy” Connors or Tommy Harrison were alive today and came back to check out their familiar haunts in the Chicago Avenue district they would discover a very changed world. The demimonde of Rush and Division no longer prowl the streets in search of lonely men soliciting sex, gambling, or booze. More than likely, they are looking for the unattended car with your cellular phone lying exposed on the console.
“Our biggest crime in this district is theft from automobiles – not prostitution or gambling,” Papagiannis explains. The then of cellular phones is a relatively new crime that was prevalent on the East and West Coasts until law enforcement agencies out there got sophisticated and figured out how the scam worked. Then it came here.
Cell phone rip-offs are a by-product of the drug culture – another example of how our failed national narcotics law have spawned new and innovative forms of crime. Jim Antonacci, who once worked for Papagiannis in the 11th District before he made rank, outlines the problem. “It starts off with the lowly addict. He goes to the buyer who he knows will give him $25-$50 for a purloined phone. In some instances it could be a pager company transacting illegal business on the side or an independent operator equipped with a black de-coder scanner and the means to grab your encoded electronic serial number (ESN) in the memory of your phone by simply positioning himself by the Kennedy Expressway at Ontario Street during rush hour. The de-coder captures 300 phone numbers in 15 minutes, scores it, then runs a cable from the phone into his lap-top computer – and bingo – our thief now has a car load of live phones.”
The victim of this nuisance crime is completely unaware that his number has been stolen until the fraudulent charges begin showing up on the next billing statement. Illegal cloning cost the cellular industry $100 million dollars in 1991. That figure rose to $650 million in 1995. “The only thing I leave in my car is the steering wheel and the seats,” quips Papagiannis.
Chasing down car-phone thieves is just one part of the job of a tactical of fleer these days. In a diverse district like the Eighteenth which spans the Gold Coast and Near North with the highest concentration of restaurants and bars in the city, and the gang-ridden Cabrini Green high rises to the immediate west, the only common denominator is that anything can happen, and it usually does.
To become an officer in TAC requires self-sacrifice, a devotion to duty and a strong desire not to be chained to a desk all day filing reports. They are the Air-Borne unit of the Chicago P.D. Forget about regular hours. “These guys have no fixed schedule. It’s an instant mobile force available to the city to be used at their discretion,” Antonacci explains. “I would like to see the union fight a little harder for the tactical officers because at the present time they are at the city’s mercy. We’ve had to call guys at home to tell them that their hours have changed for the following day. Either the city’s got to be better prepared or let us know so we can tell these officers in advance.”
The existing labor contract makes no provision for tactical of officers. If you have to move up to a tactical unit to escape the usual radio calls and the routines of patrol, it is with the implicit understanding that your hours can change at a moments notice. “Everybody likes regularity – that’s the nature of the beast,” Papagiannis, a bachelor who has sacrificed much of his private time to the job, explains. “These constant changes screw up your life. That’s too bad, but we have no choice. Their argument is this: if you don’t like the changing hours, go back on the watch. That’s not the way to address it but that’s the city’s final response.”
Tactical officers are drawn from the watch – aggressive, sharp-eyed police officers who require minimal supervision. Each district in the city with the exception of the first, has five teams. Three teams are designated for tactical response, with two gang-crimes teams comprised of one sergeant and eight officers.. There is gang presence in this otherwise upscale community of high rises, department stores, and brownstones on quiet, tree lined streets. The Cobras are active in the west end of the district where most of the shootings and gang-related violence occurs.
In the 18th District there are 52 tactical officers including Lieutenant Antonacci who has headed the unit since 1991. The district commander is Ettore DiVito who has been assigned to Eighteen since August 1990. “He’s a good guy to work for because he doesn’t bother us with nonsense,” interjects Papagiannis. He allows us to do our thing, and the results speak for themselves. For the last three years we’ve had a decrease in crime.
The tactical team is an integral part of the district’s success rate in stemming a rising tide of crime. “We’re not specialists on any one type of crime and we are not designated to do follow-up investigations. We’re specifically assigned to augment patrol officers in uniform and assist with preliminary investigations,” the lieutenant adds. “We look for anything that is against the law. We normally don’t respond to radio calls. We generate our own activity. Everybody works together on a given matter.”
James Antonacci has worked some of the toughest districts in the City of Chicago during his 25- year tour of duty, including Fillmore and Wood Street where shootings were a daily occurrence. Violence was endemic to the neighborhood.
Both veteran officers have observed the many changes that have overtaken the nature of law enforcement in the last three decades. The game has changed as these men view it. Sergeant Papagiannis does not mince words when asked about the role the politicians play today, compared to yesteryear. “The Man on Five is the only civilian I am legally obligated to obey. The police of fleer today knows that he or she is not owned by the politicians. Today, if you arrest Alderman O’Toole’s brother-in- law – no pass. That’s part of an attitudinal change in the men brought on by the changing times. There is no comparison between then and now.”
“But you know what really changed crime and police work?” The sergeant asks rhetorically. Mobilization and a sense that this is more than a job but a profession.” Antonacci nods in silent agreement.
The working conditions have steadily improved – the result of the movement toward police unionization which took shape in the late 1960s when pioneering organizations like CCPA spoke out for the rights of the patrol officer. The measurable results are not only reflected in higher wages, improved health care, and permanent shift assignments for patrol officers, but the community as a whole profited from a corresponding drop-off in police corruption. “The working conditions were terrible,” Papagiannis said. “The officers would have to steal to eat unfortunately -and they often did.”
The money just wasn’t there, Antonacci agrees. First year salaries for Chicago Police officers assigned to patrol was only $4,500 a year well into the early 1960s. The men were also responsible for the purchase and maintenance of their uniforms.
“Another big change I witnessed in my 30-years was the Supreme Court decision coming out of Tennessee – the (Garner case,” Papagiannis mentions. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Tennessee vs. Garner involved a police of officer who shot and killed a fleeing unarmed burglary suspect who was scaling a fence.]
Antonacci believes that in a more self-reliant age, the citizens of Chicago relied less on their police than they do today. “Each day presents a new challenge when it comes to deploying his thinly stretched resources where it will do the most good. Today we do everything. People rely heavily on the police and we have much more crime than in years past,” he said. “We get strange calls all the time that I could not justify sending police officers. The point is, people are more likely to call police today and ask them to do something for them whether or not it is a police function. We’ve got to address crime on the street.”
The vaunted CAPS program represents the latest attempt on the part of city fathers to take the bite out of crime – particularly in the neighborhoods encompassing the 18th District where there is the highest concentration of tourists, shoppers, and fun seekers who flock to the. lakefront during the spring, summer, and fall; to partake in the opulent urban pleasures of the Magnificent Mile, the Clybourn Corridor, Rush Street, Halsted, and the emerging restaurant row along Ontario Street. High traffic, high density -lots of pickpockets – many more drug movers.
“Years ago we had people coming down to Rush in search of prostitutes,” Antonacci said. “Now people come down looking for coke. We see bartenders selling to customers and waitresses. Transactions are made in the washroom during and after hours. Today it’s a restaurant on Division Street. Tomorrow the call will come from 1340 Larrabee in the project.”
There are methadone clinics in the district. The drug predators come in from outside the district to peddle their wares to 50-75 addicts – a captive audience. There were 496 vice raids in Eighteen in 1995. Papagiannis and Antonacci agree that 90% maybe 95% were drug-related busts connected to these kind of activities. CAPS – the neighborhood beat program designed to foster greater harmony between the police and the community – would seem to be an effective resource against these insidious forms of street crime. “I’m not going to say it is a success, Papagiannis said. It’s too early to tell. The key to making this thing work is proper staffing.”
Papagiannis believes it can work if CAPS receives additional officers.. “The city is constantly low on supervisory manpower, ” he said. There were fewer than 1,000 Chicago Police sergeants on a duty roster calling for 1,276 – a critical shortage exasperated by strong community opposition to the results of a promotional exams administered by the City of Chicago. Of the 412 promotions dating back to l994- 363 men end women, 88% were white. Ninety-four-per-cent of the 54 new lieutenants were also white – which fueled an angry outcry from a coalition of minority aldermen and the Reverend Jesse Jackson who demanded that Mayor Richard M. Daley halt the process until someone comes up with a system to ensure greater ethnic and racial diversity.
“He [Daley] is in a no-win situation,” Papagiannis believes. “I agree that the structure of the test should be different – 80% objective questions and 20% based on seniority. That’s the way it should be. Being a sergeant does not require a 250 I.Q. You’ve got blithering idiots in the military.”
In the old days, the cop on the beat never had to attend these kind of meetings. With over 40 concerned community groups in Eighteen, it becomes a time-consuming process that sometimes hinders the normal functions of patrol.
He is a seasoned veteran of law enforcement who speaks his mind with conviction and certainty and without the usual fears of reprisal so many police officers complain of today. Papagiannis is Chicago born and bred and is an instinctive street cop who has witnessed the best and worst of police work in his years at Shakespeare (14th District), Harrison Street (11th District), the Special Operations Group, and Marquette (I0th District).
He looks back on 30-years of police with few regrets. Sergeant Papagiannis admits that his outlook on life has been shaped by what he has learned on the streets. “When I started I was 22, and I looked at things in a different way that I do today,” he adds. “I’m 52-years-old now. So obviously I’ll look at a young person differently now than when I started. I remember what they used to tell us in the academy. And it still holds true today. ‘We as police officers are an extension of society.’ That’s so very true.”