One year after the police video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald was made public, the divide between the community and its police force remains a significant obstacle to reform.
To better understand the job of policing on Chicago’s streets, we enlisted two people whose work we admire. Writer and teacher Francine J. Sanders had a past life investigating allegations of police misconduct as a civilian investigator for the old Office of Professional Standards, where she learned much about good and bad policing. Robert Andersson, the creative audio journalist who founded and is executive producer of Awful Grace Radio specializes in long form audio without narration. Robert has done work for many outlets, including WBEZ. Together, they talked at length with three former Chicago police officers about their lives and their work.
“What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.
One of the most chilling moments in my career as a civilian investigator of police brutality complaints did not involve a police officer’s use of excessive force. In almost nine years on the job, I handled hundreds of cases and heard many brutal accounts of abuse, including allegations of torture. But it was an encounter with a middle-class homeowner — called in as a witness on a routine case — that still resonates all these years later.
The homeowner, a short man with glasses, sat at my desk and told me about a homeless man who had broken into his property. He said that when he and his cop buddy found the man squatting in his basement, he kicked him and then started beating him with a pipe. The homeless man, whom I had interviewed in jail and who looked much older than his age, had filed an excessive force complaint against the off-duty cop. He admitted to trespassing on the man’s property after he left the homeless shelter one morning. It was bitter cold out, he said, and he went into the basement “to get warm.”
The homeowner said that after beating the man with the pipe, he began stomping on him. After a while, he picked up a shovel and started hitting him again. His cop friend pulled him away, and the homeowner said he stopped for a while because he was winded. When he got his breath back, he started up again. He said he wanted to kill the man — and he was sorry he didn’t. Sitting across from him, I saw no signs of remorse. No sense of despair. Only disappointment. The homeless man had broken into his property; he deserved what he got. He should have gotten worse.
Looking back, I don’t think this was a story about race — all the players were black. But maybe that reality is also part of how and why things unfolded the way they did. For me, what happened in that basement was about frustration and anger — and what we do with it when we’re in the grip of emotion.
But I think it’s also about what can happen when we see someone else as an “other.” When we build walls that keep us from seeing what’s on the other side. The homeowner didn’t see the other man as a man — all he saw was an invader, a criminal, someone who had gotten into his stuff. The really chilling part is that even weeks after the event had taken place, he was still filled with hate.
In 2013, the Chicago Reader published “The Questions I Never Asked,” an article based on my interviews with a group of ex-police officers, all veterans of the Chicago streets. The focus was excessive force incidents — I hoped to get answers to questions I couldn’t ask officers when they sat across my desk as “accused” or “witness” cops.
When I met with my collaborator Robert Andersson to discuss our goals for this project, we decided to talk to ex-cops and let their stories shape the larger story. I still wanted to understand what happens during excessive force incidents: What are the emotional triggers that sometimes make good cops cross the line? How can cops de-escalate an incident that’s spiraling out of control? What does the public not get about excessive force?
But we also wanted to give our audience an alternative portrait of the police — something more full and more nuanced than some of the mainstream media’s depictions of cops and policing. We wanted to hear from cops, in their own words. Who is this person that wore the uniform, had a badge and carried a gun? Who is the human being on the other side of the wall?
Four years ago, it wasn’t difficult to find ex-cops who were willing to share their stories. Many ex-cops were willing then to talk to me, even despite my former position at the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the city’s predecessor to the Independent Police Review Authority, where I conducted the investigation into torture and abuse allegations by a man named Andrew Wilson that ultimately led to former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge’s firing and later conviction.
But in today’s climate, I wasn’t too surprised when many of the ex-cops I contacted told me that they didn’t want to be interviewed.
One white ex-cop thanked me for my interest but said that she was “staying fetal,” taking the position of most of the cops and ex-cops she knows. “Going fetal is basically doing nothing.”
She was talking about the story, but she also related it to a broader context in a follow-up e-mail: “…if you don’t do anything, you won’t get caught on video doing anything that can remotely land you in Federal Court. I’m sure you know, when someone resists, even the lightest use of force to effect the arrest can look brutal. So, stay fetal…”
Another former officer, a 32-year veteran of the force who is African American, doubted an article would have much impact. “Nobody is really putting their finger on the real problem,” he said, but the public already knows what’s going on and what needs to be done. He said health issues prevented him from meeting in person, but he shared some thoughts over the phone.
“The public gets it,” he said, when it comes to police use of force. “There’s self-awareness.”
But he said there’s also an attitude of not wanting to acknowledge what needs to be done. “They think you can have control over people by following the Constitution, by following all the rules… but if you follow the letter of the law, if you follow the rules, the jail cells would be empty. No one would be arrested and no one would be convicted, except for clear-cut cases. “You can’t just go by the book,” he said. “You need to cross that line to get the job done.”
The former officer echoed the view that the police are currently holding back, calling them “on shut down.” From his home in Bronzeville, he sees Michigan Avenue and King Drive full of trucks that are not permitted on these boulevards. “The police aren’t giving tickets,” he said.
They are failing to enforce “even the simple stuff.”
A third ex-cop said he did not see the point in telling his story.
That resignation all three expressed seemed to speak volumes about what’s going on.
Fortunately, some ex-cops did talk to us. I had interviewed Donna Adams and Nathaniel Hanserd for the previous Reader story. Despite today’s more volatile climate, neither hesitated to participate. Hanserd was also an accused officer on one of my OPS investigations. The complaint against Hanserd had been sustained, meaning there was enough evidence to prove the allegations. Neither of us could recall the specifics of the incident. Hanserd said I had been “fair.” I hadn’t seen Merrilee Martin for over 20 years. She and I had worked together as OPS investigators before she left the unit to become a cop. One of her ex-cop colleagues advised her against doing this interview, but she ignored his warning.
Each of the interviews was illuminating. As a collective, they offered several common threads, consistent themes that ran like currents in their words, and sometimes in between the words.
“Working as a police officer is a lot like working in the mental hospital … except you get to go outside.”
“Why would I tell you if I had crossed the line?” said Merrilee Martin, former Chicago police sergeant. The last time we had seen each other, two decades earlier, I was still working as an investigator for the Office of Professional Standards (OPS). Martin had worked at OPS, too, before leaving to become a cop. We often partnered up for field work, and had learned a lot about the city and life as rookie investigators. It was good to see that the years hadn’t chipped away at her energy or her sense of humor.
Martin grew up in Salinas, California, the daughter of a farmer and rancher. Her only real exposure to the world of law enforcement was her grandfather, a marshal in the Arizona territory and then a U.S. marshal. She also had a cousin who was married to an undercover cop. “I thought police were cool,” she said.
She moved to Illinois to attend Northwestern, got married, and worked in the mental health field for over 10 years. After getting divorced, she returned to California, now with two small children, and “thought police work would be a good place to a make a living.” Her first cop job was at Stanford, part of Santa Clara County’s Sheriff’s Department. But with her young kids’ father still in Chicago, she ended up moving back.
Almost immediately, she applied to the CPD, but nothing was available. “They told me it would be years, but they may have a slot at OPS.” She wanted to be a cop, but she took the position as a civilian investigator of complaints against cops. She knew it was just a placeholder. “In my mind, my five years I worked at OPS I was always waiting to become the police.”
Martin said one of the most pivotal moments in her policing career happened when she was still a rookie at Stanford. The incident was also one of her toughest lessons about what it meant to be a cop. She and her field training officer (FTO) were assigned to watch a suspect who had been arrested for raping his own child and putting cigarette butts on the child’s body. The suspect was inside a hospital waiting room, not handcuffed. Martin watched as the detective on the case came into the room and “walked right over to him and slugged this guy right in the face and knocked him totally to the ground.”
Martin said right after that, her supervisor came in “and started yelling at us because we let this happen.” He asked her and the FTO why they didn’t try to intervene.
“I never thought of intervening … or that the detective had done anything wrong,” said Martin. “I thought if you’re a child molester and you hurt a child and the detective knocked you out, I guess I thought that was what’s supposed to happen. And, of course, it’s not.”
The incident forced her to reassess her thinking and take a hard look at what it means to be a cop. “I had to really think about what it is I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Your job can’t be tied exactly to your emotions,” she said. “It has to be tied to what is right and what you’re supposed to be doing. … It has to be tied to the facts.”
Martin joined the sworn ranks of the CPD in 1991 and was promoted to sergeant in 1996. She was forced to take mandatory retirement when she turned 63 in 2007.
Martin said she often tells people that “working as a police officer is a lot like working in the mental hospital, except you get to go outside.” At Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, she worked on a locked ward with teenage patients that were “the most volatile in the state.” She loved the job. Police work is similar, she said, “because you’re dealing with the unusual … with people and circumstances that are not normal. … You’re crisis intervention in both places.”
“You have some black males who become the police and they forget they’re black. All they see is, ‘I’m the police.’ I’m black first, and then I’m the policeman.”
Nate Hanserd summed up his early impressions of the police as “horrible.” As a kid, he had no interest in being a cop. His grandmother wanted him to be doctor or a lawyer.
Hanserd grew up on 94th and Elizabeth, a mixed community at the time. He and his black friends spent most of their days trying to fight off an all-white street gang. It was a tension-filled world: “We fought with the 95th Street Gents every day until I went off to college,” he said. The “dividing line” was Throop and “as far as the African Americans were allowed to go before they got attacked.” But most of the stores were on the other side of Throop. “So you either dared to go, or you just stayed at home and were bullied.”
It was these early encounters that also helped define how Hanserd saw police. It turned out that a lot of the gang members’ parents were police officers in his community. “Interaction with the police was whenever they came we were always wrong because their children were out there and we were the ones causing problems.”
Despite these rough early impressions, after returning from the military — he served five years including two years as military police — Hanserd joined the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Five years later, at 29, he became a Chicago cop. A lot of his friends were policemen, so it seemed like a natural direction. But he credits his experiences with the sheriff’s department as being the catalyst for his decision.
“I recognized that working inside the jail that there was an alarming number of African Americans locked up.” Hanserd said he listened to inmates’ stories and “it became to me an atrocity to see people getting locked up for no apparent reason. So I knew the only way I would be able to defend myself was to now become the Chicago police.”
Hanserd was introduced to Chicago police culture his first day on the job, walking into the 6th District station.
“I had on blue jeans, cowboy boots, starched shirt, and I had my uniform over my shoulder.” He walked up to the front desk and saw five officers sitting behind the desk. “They kind of looked up at me nonchalantly,” he said, “and they continued their conversation.” Hanserd recalled standing there for about five to seven minutes. “Finally,” he said, “one of them turned around and said, ‘Yeah, what do you want?’”
“How about a locker?” Hanserd asked, and showed him his I.D. Then he had a moment of recognition: A couple of these officers used to be members of the same white street gang that bullied him and other young African Americans in his old neighborhood.
Hanserd said he did encounter some good police officers growing up. “I wish I could remember their names,” he said, “because one guy came up and he said to me, ‘Kid, they’re gonna pick on you for the rest of your life, so just be careful and watch yourself.’”
Hanserd retired 12 years ago after a 22-year career.
“Took the test. I passed. And it’s like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m gonna be the police? No. Not me!’ I never would’ve thought that I’d be the police. … It was the best move I ever made.”
Donna Adams planned on a career as a psychologist. As a young woman, being a cop wasn’t even on her radar. She grew up on the West Side of Chicago surrounded by a multigenerational group of strong women. Her mother remarried, and the family ended up on the South Side, the second black family on the block. It was the late ’60s and “the civil rights movement was getting ready to gear up and things were getting ugly.” By the time she hit middle school, she became very aware of race.
She remembers the summer when her family moved to Carpenter Street. Kids threw eggs and rocks at her house “when they realized there were colored living in the neighborhood.” Adams said despite being small (“I didn’t weigh 100 pounds”), she went out and fought. “I had to go out and address that,” she said, “because you’re throwing eggs and rocks at my mother’s house and that’s not gonna happen.”
When it came to race, Adams said her family didn’t really talk about it. Her mother “is black, always has been black,” but always identified with her Native American heritage and never really acknowledged being African American. Her mother was also a very strict disciplinarian.
“I went the complete opposite way. I was a rebel,” said Adams. By the ’70s, she had an Angela Davis afro and “was as anti-establishment as you could get.”
“I’ve always walked on the left side,” she said.
Adams said her family also never talked about the police, and that she had no contact with the police growing up. It wasn’t until she became a victim of a crime that she had any interaction with cops.
She was 25 and had just been raped — for the second time. She went to the district station at 51st and Wentworth to look at mugshots. “It was almost like going through a high school yearbook. Oh, I know him.” While she was there, one of the detectives hit on her. He was 50 and “a really cute guy,” she said. He was also a “such a gentleman,” said Adams.
The two ended up becoming good friends and when she was later in the hospital recovering from surgery, he visited her every day with flowers and candy. “I felt so special,” she said. “He treated me like a princess and I had never had that happen before.”
Along with building her confidence, the officer also changed the direction of her life. On the day she was going to be discharged from the hospital, he asked her, “Do you think you can sit up for a few hours?” Adams figured he wanted to take her to lunch, but she discovered he had signed her up to take the police exam.
“I don’t want to be no police! They’re pigs!” She said her first reaction was shock. The rebel in her still saw the police as “no good.” But then she considered where she was at in her life: raising three children alone, going to school, and “doing whatever job I could get making absolutely no money at all.” She took the test and passed. “And it’s like, Oh, shit. I’m gonna be the police? No. Not me! I never thought that I’d be the police.”
Adams retired from the CPD in 2011 after a 25-year career.
“I used to always tell people: Put on my uniform for one day and let me give you my worst-case scenario. And then you come back and tell me what kind of policeman you would be.” – Nathaniel Hanserd
“I had a lot of them,” Hanserd said, when I asked him for that worst-case scenario. But the one that he’d usually tell people began with a traffic accident at 86th and Racine. Hanserd got a call from his sergeant and lieutenant: “Listen, we need you to come do something.”
When he got there, they said, “Listen, we can’t find this baby’s head. We need you to find it.” Hanserd learned that a 3-year-old baby had been hit by a car and was decapitated. “The body was in the street but they couldn’t find the head,” he said.
He asked where the baby and his mother had been standing before the baby was struck. There was a van parked there, so Hanserd put on some coveralls and crawled underneath. “As I slid under the van and looked up, there was the baby…the head…looking at me, sitting on the axle.” He took it down and put it in a bag. Then he went back to work.
“That’s probably one of the roughest days of my life,” said Hanserd, “because you think about your children, you think about circumstances and situations.”
Another scenario that Hanserd used to cite when people would try to tell him how to do his job took place during a summer heat wave. He and fellow officers had to remove almost 100 bodies.
“How would you like to get into a house and there’s a person that’s been dead for nine months, and he’s stuck to linoleum so now you have to kind of shovel him up, roll him over and put him in a body bag?”
“People think that policemen come out every day just to fight,” he said. “It’s not about fighting. It’s about doing a job.”
Martin said that most days were good days, but there were a few days that still haunt her.
When she was working in the 15th District on the city’s West Side, she and her partner went to a home in response to an allegation of children being mistreated. When she arrived, she met a 14-year-old boy she recognized from the street. She said he probably sold dope. There were two other children, a third-grader and a younger child who was probably in kindergarten. The 14-year-old said he hadn’t seen his mother for a few days and that he “takes care of these kids.” Martin and her partner called DCFS.
While waiting, the older boy said to her, “As long as you’re here, can you maybe help me?” Martin said, “Sure, what do you need?” The boy said, “I don’t know how to cook this.” Then he opened up a large freezer and Martin saw that it was filled with bones. “Just bones,” she said. She told him, “I don’t know how to cook that, either.”
It’s been about 25 years since this encounter, but Martin said the emotions are still raw. “Here he is, he’s out on the street selling drugs. He’s very proud of the child that’s in, like, third grade, and he thinks he’s raising him. And he’s 14 years old,” she said. “Well, you know. That’s really sad. … When people talk about poverty and why people are in gangs. I’m like, ‘Sometimes they don’t have any other options.’”
Martin’s toughest day of her career began when she drove up to the district station to start her shift. She said it was usually pretty quiet on the street, but that day “it felt like thousands of people around the station.” When she got inside, she learned that two rookie cops had been shot. She was one of their field training officers. Someone had shot the officers when they walked into a narrow alley to investigate a burglary. One of the rookies was going to pull through; the other, Dan Doffyn, was in bad shape.
“We waited our whole shift, waiting to see if Dan was going to pull through,” she said, “and he didn’t.” Martin still remembers the day well, even though it was over 20 years ago and she had only worked with Doffyn a few months. “I know that only knowing someone three months doesn’t seem like a big deal,” she said, but “he was a very alive person. He was a very alive person.” She said that Doffyn was also a very “inclusive” person. Martin and her cop friends in the district never ate meals together, she said, “but as soon as he showed up, we all got together for dinner all the time.”
The loss haunted her for another reason. “This seems so stupid,” she said, “but it seemed to me all that time we waited I worried about how come I didn’t tell him not to go into an alley like that with a window there where someone could shoot him. … In the Academy, they tell you cover and concealment, cover and concealment … but I stood there the whole time going, I was one of his training officers. I didn’t teach him something basic.”
Martin said that every police officer coming on the police force should expect that one of their friends may get killed. But when it happened, it hit her hard. “I kept thinking he was going to pull through, and I couldn’t believe he didn’t.”
“Worst day? Jesus. There were more than a few,” said Adams.
“What sticks out the most is the one where one of my kids — he was no angel, not by a long shot. He was a halfway decent human being, but he was criminal. … This fool decided he was going to do a drive-by while riding a bicycle.” Adams said after he got killed (“He got lit up. Just plain foolishness”), she was assigned the job. It took only about four minutes for the word to get out in the neighborhood.
“So here comes his mother and she’s screaming, my baby, my baby, and she’s trying to get to him. And I had to keep her back. It was a crime scene.” Adams said the mother’s “just crying. She’s on the ground, she’s on her knees, and she’s just crying.”
“I wasn’t just the police at that moment,” said Adams. “I was a woman who had children who could relate to this woman losing her child. It didn’t matter that he was a criminal. It didn’t matter that he had made a stupid move. None of that mattered. Here we have a mother who has lost her son. I have a son.”
Another incident involved a big family that she had known for many years. They were great people, she said, and they had twin sons who “were beautiful. Physically beautiful. Great spirits.” Both of them also sold drugs. Adams knew about their drug dealing, but her rules were that on her watch, between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., “this shit ain’t happening. I better not see you.”
Towards the end of her career on the street, Adams learned that one of the boys had been killed in a vacant lot in another beat of her district. “They found his body. Somebody had tried to cover it up with lye … poured lye all over his body.”
Adams said that “even today it just hurts … now he’s dead and there’s a mother who doesn’t have her other son.”
“It’s always been about this fight. … If I just sit back and let the world wash over me, then you know I’m a punk and I deserve it.” – Donna Adams
For Adams, some of the greatest emotional challenges on the job were dealing with the culture inside the department, not tensions on the street.
One time, she responded to a woman’s call about her brother, a mentally ill man who had not taken his medication. When she arrived, the young man, an African American, was naked and spinning around in a circle. More officers showed up, including a sergeant and lieutenant. Adams was the only black officer on the scene. She advised the other officers that the man wasn’t violent, that they just needed to get his clothes on, get him in the squadrol and take him to the hospital. But that’s not what happened.
“The officers decided that they would make a ring and encircle this young man … and they start closing in as he’s spinning around,” she said. “Then they started pushing him back and forth as though he were some kind of ball … just pushing him and they’re laughing and they’re joking.”
Adams was enraged by the officers’ actions. She went into the circle, forcefully moved the officers away, and took the man by his hand. After getting the man dressed and into the wagon, she “went off on the sergeant. I went off on the lieutenant. I went off on all the officers.” The incident was “hurtful,” she said.
“You’ve got a room full of authority and this is how they’re behaving. … I mean, here I am. I’m a female. I’m black. And I’m the police. And here they’re showing the worst part of being the police.” The incident also disturbed her because “they lacked any kind of empathy. They were making fun of this guy.”
This wasn’t the only time Adams brushed up against the culture, and it wasn’t always with white officers. A black sergeant kept picking on her: “Officer Adams, you don’t have your hat on. Officer Adams, you don’t have your tie fastened.” Adams figured he was unhappy because she didn’t accept his unwelcome advances.
The situation escalated one day when Adams was assigned to work the radio room and pass out radios to the officers heading out to the street. When she didn’t take the radio to the sergeant like the usual radio person always did (“His legs worked. He can walk to the radio room and get it”), the sergeant came to the room, walked inside and slammed the door shut. It was a small space with a couple of chairs and a storage cabinet. “He pushed the chair and got up in my face … and made some comment to me … ‘If you weren’t a woman, I’d kick your ass.’” Adams said she still remembers the sound of the chair when the sergeant rolled it on the floor and it slammed against the metal cabinet.
“Don’t let that stop you. Let’s get it on right the fuck now,” she said. She told him that if he wanted to fight her, “Let’s fight.” He stood there for a while, then turned around and walked out. When she left the room, she went straight to the watch commander’s office. The on-duty lieutenant told her to talk to the captain. When the captain made excuses for the sergeant’s actions, she picked up the interdepartmental phone and called the newly appointed district commander.
“I went through the chain of fucking command and nobody was listening to me,” she said. She tried to file a sexual harassment complaint but all she got was backlash. She still gets grief from some former cops. They ask her, “Why would you do that to the sergeant?”
Adams recalled that two other female officers in her unit also had problems with this sergeant, and that they had to “put out” to get better assignments. But “I was never one to be easily manipulated.”
“I will not kiss ass,” she said. “I didn’t kiss ass when I got raped. I took it. But I didn’t bow down and I didn’t let it get me down.”
“It’s always been about this fight,” she said. “If I don’t fight, if I just sit back and let the world wash over me, then you know I’m a punk and I deserve whatever I’m going to get. … Sometimes you have to stand down, take a break, but you don’t break out. You don’t just go down for the count. You go down for three counts and you get your ass back up and get right back into that fight.”
Nathaniel Hanserd’s career as a cop is also, in part, a story about race and standing up. For him, being a black man in the CPD was often a story of black versus blue.
Like Adams, he recalled incidents where he was forced to directly address what he considered the racist behavior of fellow officers.
At 79th and Racine, he and his partner were working undercover, sitting in their car watching a dope house, when they saw two white officers stop a group of young black men on the street. Hanserd heard one of the officers tell the men, “Alright, I want all you little niggers to get on the ground.”
“I said, I can’t just sit here. I gotta get up and say something.” He got out of the car and walked up to the officers. “So would you refer to me in the same manner?” One of the officers said he just used the word “in the heat of the moment.” Hanserd asked the cop if that’s what he calls Hanserd when he’s at home with his friends “in the heat of the moment.” Hanserd told the white cops that he knows these young men and “they were standing at the corner, they went to the store and they are walking home. … You’re looking for numbers and it’s not gonna happen with every black child in the community.”
Incidents like this “always made you think about who you were and where you came from,” said Hanserd. “I saw myself in 1968 being harassed by the white police. That was me getting on the ground.”
During his years on the job, Hanserd said he noticed that the majority of white officers he encountered were biased and prejudiced, but “as you watched, you could see it unfold that some of them weren’t really as bad as they appeared to be.” He said what was really going on was “they had to stick with the group.”
Martin, the only ex-officer I talked to who was not raised in Chicago, and the only white ex-cop interviewed for this story, had a different perspective in terms of the culture.
“I saw active cops and not active cops,” she said. “That’s my dividing line.” Martin said she never saw a racial divide inside the department. And she also didn’t see it on the street. “I didn’t see black people thinking of me as a person who came to occupy their territory,” she said.
She also never felt a lot of backlash as a female officer or supervisor. “Some of the detectives were patronizing,” she said, “but the people I worked with … I never felt anything adverse at all.” Martin said she doesn’t know what to attribute it to, but “there was a real sense of camaraderie.” This was especially true of her time in the West Side Austin district. Martin said she’s run into many ex-cops at events or gatherings since her retirement, and the ones who worked in Austin always say the same thing: It was the best part of their career.
“You can have all the mental mindset to do things exactly by the book, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be in control of your emotions.” – Merrilee Martin
In talking to the ex-cops, I realized the questions that drove me in the past were probably the wrong questions. What’s a cop thinking during an excessive force incident? What’s behind the choice to cross the line? Excessive force incidents usually happen during an escalation of events — when emotions take over — and probably when the people involved are not thinking.
“Everyone has triggers,” said Martin.
“I can’t recall ever crossing the line,” she said. But she did recall a couple of situations when she came dangerously close. She said she can also understand why police officers do sometimes go too far.
Child abuse incidents, like the one at Stanford, were always difficult. Another time, while working for the CPD, she and a group of officers responded to a call on Madison Street and found a baby in a crib covered with cockroaches. One of the female cops on the scene lunged at the baby’s mother. Martin and other officers had to intervene.
“I was holding her back,” said Martin, “but I wasn’t that far from being that officer.”
A case when Martin herself came close to crossing the line involved domestic abuse, another emotional trigger for her.
She was a sergeant in the 13th District, which included Ukrainian Village, and had been called to a scene by two young officers. When she arrived, she saw the victim, a middle-aged woman, who reported she’d been beaten up by her husband. She had two black eyes, and the hair had been ripped out on the front of her head.
Despite being battered, the woman told the officers that she didn’t want to sign a complaint. “I love him,” she told them. “I deserved it.” Martin asked the woman what she loved about him. “His money,” she said.
Martin said when she heard this, she snapped. “You disgust me,” she told her. She was about to lunge at her, but “the other officers jumped in front of me. They probably thought I was going to hit her,” she said.
“But I love him. I heard this over and over and over in every domestic situation. Or but I love her. There’s an amazing amount of men that are abused.” she said. “I think there’s a temptation to forgive people because you care for them. … I think I see that in everyone. I’m one of those people.”
Like Martin, Adams said emotions play a big part in understanding excessive force incidents and why some encounters escalate. She said the crossing of the line into excessive is also situational.
“You’re arresting someone and they spit in your face. Where does the excess come in? You just had spit in your face. You’ve just been punched in the face. It’s a human reaction that happens.”
Adams defined it this way: “Excess is when … you stop for a minute to catch your breath because you’re getting ready to go back in. That’s when it becomes excessive.” She said in these situations, officers “really have to know when to cut it off. But emotions aren’t ruled at all by common sense or thinking or any of that. I mean … emotions are just that. It’s a fire. It’s a burning out of control fire. So it’s kind of hard.”
One of Adams’s biggest triggers was kids who are defenseless. The best example involved a little girl. She and some other officers responded to a call of a domestic. “I get in the building. I could hear the screaming. The little girl’s screaming. The father’s screaming. We go through the door and there he is standing over this child with a big bed slat in his hand. Raised and getting ready to hit her.”
Adams said she immediately “flew in and went after him.” The little girl jumped up onto Adams’s hip. “And I don’t know if I had my baton or flashlight but probably the baton and I’m whacking at him with this, with this child on my hip.”
Adams said she remembers the emotions of the incident more than the details. “I remember how fucking angry I was, especially after finding out the reason he was beating her.” At the station, Adams asked the man why he had hit his daughter. He said she wasn’t learning how to tell time fast enough.
“So, yeah, I hit him. I hit him more than a few times and I didn’t feel bad doing it then. I don’t feel bad now. I would do it again,” she said. “I don’t care what your rationale is. A child does not deserve to be beat.”
Hanserd also recalled a couple of incidents when a situation pushed his emotional button. Both of them involved sexual assault victims. He said in these situations “on impulse you see your mother, you see any woman out there that’s defenseless.”
One time he and his partners saw a man dragging a woman through an alley into a building. He dragged her into the basement; Hanserd and his partner followed behind. They were about six feet away when the man pushed the woman on her knees, pulled out his penis and told her, “I want you to suck this until I come.” The woman begged the man not to make her do this and even offered him money. Then he smacked her and told her he didn’t want her money. “I just want you to suck it.” That’s when Hanserd tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Open your mouth.” He stuck in his gun, a .44 Magnum, and said, “Now I want you to suck this, but you’d better hope I don’t come.”
Hanserd said this was one of those situations where an officer “could go to black, but you don’t. Because the point was served. He understood.” He said the woman’s reaction was like a lot of victims. “Give me a gun. I’ll kill him,” she said. “You put the public on their knees with the guy saying ‘suck this’ and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is ‘I’ll bite it off’ or ‘I’ll kill him.’”
“It’s not real hard for people to understand when you’re put under the gun. And it wasn’t a point of me brandishing a weapon or sticking it in his mouth because I was angry,” he said. “It was just the fact that how do you like a foreign object being stuck in your mouth?”
“Sometimes we have to say things to people that they understand.” From the outside looking in, the public may not get it. “I think people in general don’t understand police officers are human. And if you come up on the scene and you see a mother that’s laying on the ground, 60 or 70 years old, and the son has knocked her down, we all think about our mothers. We all think about the situation. And if the mother says going in, ‘Whoop him for me’, he may just get whooped. Now is that excessive?”
Adams said there are other reasons that cops sometimes go too far, and she’s been there. “I’m pretty positive that I did cross the line,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten my pound of flesh. But it was not to the point where anybody had to go to the hospital.” For her, crossing the line sometimes involved sending a message.
She recalled an incident when a woman had spit on a female officer’s face inside one of the station’s interview rooms. Adams took the officer out of the room, cleaned up her face, and said, “She’s gonna do that to another officer and she ain’t gonna be so lucky.” Adams asked her, “What you gonna do about it? ‘Cause she’s gonna punk you through the night.”
The other officer went back in the room, closed the door and beat the woman. “She didn’t hurt her badly,” said Adams. “In this context, if that female officer had not gone back in there and slapped the shit out of that woman — taking the cuffs off of her first ‘cause you want it to be a fair fight … took the gun off, left it with me … If she had not gone back in there and gotten her pound of flesh, gotten some of that ass, then next time that woman would’ve encountered another officer and she would’ve stepped up her violence. Stepped up her negative response.”
Adams said that every officer has a responsibility to make sure their encounter with a citizen does not lead to an escalation between that citizen and another officer later down the line. “So you have to nip it in the bud how and so ever you can.” If you don’t, she said, you create the culture we have today.
“The book is the guideline but there’s always grey areas.” – Nathaniel Hanserd
It’s no surprise that the ex-cops we talked to felt a palpable frustration — both in response to the public’s perception of what police do and how their actions are judged. It often seems to come down to lack of context. As an investigator of excessive force incidents, I understand this frustration. I was trained to consider “the totality of circumstances.” No two excessive force incidents were the same. Each had to be evaluated based on a preponderance of the evidence. But that evidence was often limited or offered conflicting versions of what happened. Tangible physical evidence for most cases didn’t exist. Many excessive force cases rely heavily on witness accounts, but even the most credible witness didn’t necessarily see all of the event. I was often left with only fragments that I had to try to piece together.
“Unless you know the whole story,” Hanserd said, “it’s easy to criticize. It’s easy to say, well, he was wrong.” Hanserd contrasts the typical excessive force incidents with what we’ve been seeing in the news. “Most of these incidents that are happening now,” he said, “I mean it’s just outright blatant that they’re shooting children in the back, or they’re shooting people … it’s ridiculous.”
But most incidents are not black and white, he said. They’re shades of grey. “If a guy runs at me with a baseball bat and I tell him several times to drop the bat. He doesn’t drop it and I shoot him. Some people will say: Well, that was excessive, you didn’t have to shoot him. He had a bat.” Hanserd said in a situation like this, people often don’t look at the full picture. “If he hits me on the head with that bat, what happens? I could die. So, to prevent him from hurting me, and hurting anyone else, he gets shot.”
Another typical scenario: “The guy is fighting and then he starts to lose and he wants to say, ‘I quit.’ At what point do you know that he wants to quit? It becomes difficult,” he said.
He recalled a case on South Union when two white female officers responded to a noise complaint in a black community. Hanserd was one of several officers that responded to the officers’ 10-1 call for assistance. When he got there, dozens of people were in the front of the two-flat building. He heard the two officers screaming for help. One was around 5-foot-5; the other was around 5-foot-2. He learned later that after the officers had asked the residents to turn down the music, a large group of intoxicated people started “piling out of the apartment and jumping on the officers.” By the time Hanserd and his partner were able to get close enough, “the female officers were pent up in a corner. So my partner and I started letting them have it and just started tossing people off the porch to get to them, to make sure they were okay.”
Hanserd said that in a scenario like this, it would be easy for people on the outside to misjudge his actions. “When you looked at it from across the street, you’d say, ‘Wow, those policemen had lost their minds, they’re going crazy hitting people with these sticks.’ But it wasn’t about hitting people with sticks,” he said, “it was about getting to two officers who were screaming for help.”
“Excessive force defined by the department or excessive force defined by you in the middle of a fight? Two completely different things,” said Adams. She recalled an incident when she and two other female officers were attempting to handcuff a woman. Their attempts to talk her down (“She was on 10 and never came down”) didn’t work. As Adams attempted to put the handcuffs on, “she turns around and hits me with the heel of her hand right in the middle of my chest.” Adams hit the floor still holding the cuffs. “This might be considered excessive,” she said, “because I didn’t stop to think, Oh, my God, I still have cuffs in my hand and I’m about to beat the shit out of this woman. Oh, dear, that’s a rule violation. Let me put my cuffs up first. No!” Adams bounced back up and “hit her dead in the face with my fist that still happened to have the handcuffs in my hand.” Adams said the blow caused the woman to fall and break her glass cocktail table, but she got back up and punched Adams again. It took the assistance of another office to finally handcuff the woman. “She fought the whole time,” she said.
By today’s standards, she said, this would have been considered excessive force. “I should’ve ducked when she pushed me. I should’ve stepped aside. I probably should’ve apologized for being in the way of her hand.”
Martin’s perspective is shaped both by her years as a cop on the street as well as her years investigating allegations about cops. “I think there’s a difference between what an OPS investigator sees after the fact and what actually happens on the street,” she said. “There’s cases where you’re trying to control an unruly person … and what you’re doing is trying to protect yourselves and the other officers. And what OPS might see is six officers on one person and that’s really awful. But sometimes it takes six people to control one person. And sometimes you have to show that no matter what the situation is … the police have to be the ones to control it.”
Martin, like every officer or ex-officer I’ve ever talked to, expressed that survival is a top priority. And it was also about protecting fellow cops. She cited the 2015 Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray. She was home watching CNN and the program cut to coverage of the incident. Martin said she “went berserk.”
“They had a line of 20 officers holding back a mob. And no one came. There were no reinforcements. Nobody came,” she said. For her, this was a turning point. “When the city and the police administration thought it was more important to let people riot and express themselves than to protect the police that they hired to prevent that from happening, I was totally, completely infuriated and sure that this was the end of civilization.”
Martin saw this event from the prism of her past experience. “If there was a riot in the 15th District. Say it was 10 people, and I called for help. Help came. People came from other districts. … Railroad police would show up. If you called for help, everyone shows up and does what they have to do to get that situation back under control. In Baltimore that didn’t happen,” she said. “Those officers needed help, they wanted help, they called for help, and they didn’t get it. And they didn’t get it because the city was too afraid to help them, because they didn’t want to look like the police were being excessive.”
This lack of response, she said, “is not going to work for civilization. … If we don’t control the streets, we’re done. And we have to do what we have to do to control the streets.”
After listening to these ex-cops talk about their stories from the past and recent past, I can’t help wondering if today’s use of technology has significantly lessened the “gray” of excessive force incidents. When I was on the job as an investigator, we didn’t have video evidence to consider. Today’s use of videos from body cameras and dashboard cameras certainly creates more opportunities to determine what did or didn’t happen during an event — and they are certainly a step in the right direction toward increased transparency and accountability. But there are still many limitations and issues that play into how accurately these tools reveal the truth. No different than a documentary filmmaker’s story, the camera still creates a frame and only reveals part of reality. Even when they’re used and used properly, does video footage tell the whole story?
“If I can identify with a person, then I can empathize with them.” – Merrilee Martin
One of the consistent threads that emerged in talking to the ex-cops was the deep connection they felt toward the communities they served. Despite the frustrations of the job, both on the street or within the culture, they were invested. And I can’t help thinking that it’s because they cared so much that they feel this sense of frustration. Policing was personal to them. This was evidenced by the way they talked about the public even years after being on the job: my beat, my seniors, my people.
After completing her probation period as a rookie in the 5th and 2nd districts, Adams requested to work in District 7, the Englewood district. “You know Englewood has been the armpit of Chicago for a very long time,” said Adams. “I felt that I would be able to do something.”
The neighborhood resonated for her. “I was working with people just like me. People who were victims of crimes. People who looked just like me. People who had lived on public aid just like I did.” She didn’t want to work in a community like Beverly, which she called “too bourgeois.” She liked that people in her beat often called her Miss Adams instead of Officer Adams. “I treated them like family … like my children, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my uncles, my sons, my brothers. I treated them like humans.”
Adams said it became her mission to prove to people in the community that they determined the outcome of their interaction with the police. “And,” she said, “to prove to these people that not every police officer was bad. … We just happened to meet up when someone’s having a bad day.”
Part of her approach was to bring down the conversation by letting people know that she understands they’re upset, but also reminding them that their encounter was the result of “something you did. Something someone did to you. So, don’t take it out on me.” She would tell the people she encountered, “You let me know how I am going to treat you.”
For Adams, it was about everyone taking responsibility: “Now you bring it down. I bring it down and we can find a way. We’re going to go through this shit together.” Adams said that most times, things did calm down and she and the other party worked it out. “They respected the fact that I talked to them as a human being.”
Language played an important role in her approach. That meant saying whatever was necessary to communicate, especially during situations that could easily escalate. “I spoke to them plainly. I never used 30 dollar words. Motherfucker, would you listen to what the fuck I’m telling you? ... Once I got their attention, then I could back up and maybe use 15 dollar words … and then I’d go back and use 2 dollar words so they could understand. I did not want my message to get lost on anything that I did.”
“I had a brain and I had my mouth and those were my best weapons,” said Adams. “And my wolf tickets were really good,” she said. “My wolf ticket is like, ‘I will fuck you up. I’m the big bad wolf and I’m selling those tickets.’ And they believed me … you know, little five-feet, buck-five. They believed me.”
“It didn’t work all the time. That’s why there had to be some fights,” she said. But, fortunately, there weren’t a lot of them. She also felt fortunate that she never had to fire her gun, except at the range.
“I loved these people,” said Adams. “In the academy they taught us it’s us against them. No, it’s not,” she said. And for her, it was an everyday process to show that. “We enforced it every time we talked to them.” It might be just asking, “How you doing?” to people on the street, or it could be jumping rope with some girls, or organizing a group of citizens to pull weeds and dump garbage in a trash-filled vacant lot that the city failed to clean up. “One day, it was quiet. No calls. And I got people out and said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna clean this damn lot!’”
Adams said she took the sergeant’s exam once — for the money — but said she wasn’t disappointed when she didn’t get the promotion. She preferred “being right there in the mix on the street, touching, talking, feeling and then engaging with my people. That’s who they were and still are, my people.”
Hanserd, like Adams, often worked in communities like the one in which he grew up. “You’re dealing with, you know, the people. There’s a personal relationship.”
“A lot of times police officers forget that they work for the community. They don’t work for themselves and we don’t work for the police department per se, but we work for this community that we’re in.”
Hanserd also said a big part of good communication and good policing comes from letting the other person set the tone of the encounter and talking to people one human being to another. He said situations between police officers and the public are “much easier when you approach a person and ask them, ‘How would you like to be addressed?’ Then it’s first name, last name. … You always look at it from the perspective of: You gotta have a personality and treat people the same way you wanna be treated.”
Like Adams, Hanserd knows the power of words. “Conversation is key in anything,” he said. “When you’re able to have a conversation you can almost change the complexion of the incident.”
He said that part of being able to effectively communicate with people was that he grew up in their neighborhood. “I understood how people disliked the police and why they disliked the police … so I don’t want people to be intimidated or to be in fear. So I just nonchalantly walk up to them. Never with the aggression or the fact that look I’ve got a badge and a gun so you’re gonna listen to me. Not at all.”
“We’re all people. We’re all human,” he said. “Once you let me know who you are, then I can deal with you from that level.” It was always about relating to people. “At the end of the day, I’m still black. I’m still that guy that they harassed when I was 12 years old.”
“There’s great value in everybody,” said Martin.
She said there were a lot of problems in Austin, but most of the people who live there are “good people with good lives.” She said even some of the people in gangs that she got to know were “interesting people or likable people.”
She recalled an incident involving a gang member she knew from previous arrests. He was the “enforcer” from one of the area’s gangs and he was shot and killed outside a restaurant. It was about 4 a.m. and a lot of people came out. Martin went to the scene. She heard some of the bystanders say things like, “It’s a good thing that piece of shit is dead.”
The comments disturbed her. Martin thought he had some personality and that when she had arrested him in the past, he was always fun to talk to. “I had a rapport with him,” she said. “He was in the Navy. My dad was in the Navy.”
She said that a lot of the people talking smack about the man were kids with lots of bravado who didn’t really know him. “People don’t understand,” she said. “Even people who are in gangs have personalities and families and a lot of times, they didn’t have the opportunities that the young police had.”
All three ex-cops noted that the public sometimes forgets that police officers are human beings, like them. Identifying with the people they served made them better cops. But it also at times presented emotional challenges. “Sometimes you have to put your emotions off to the side, but there’s so many times you have to fight back the tears … so many times,” said Adams.
One of those times was when a young girl on her beat was raped by her neighbor. The girl’s sister came home and called the police. Adams and her fellow officers arrived at the scene before the girl’s mother.
Adams said when the mother walked in and found out what happened, she “headed straight to the kitchen and I could see her eyes looking at the refrigerator.” Adams then noticed there was an evening purse on top. She thought: What kind of woman keeps an evening bag on her refrigerator?
Something clicked. “Okay. She’s got a gun. Did I see it? No. I felt it.” At that moment, she put herself inside the woman’s situation. “I was walking with that woman in her own shoes. She was going to get that gun and kill that boy.”
Adams, who is five feet tall, grabbed the mother (“a big woman”) around the waist “and we did a pull-pull walk. I’d pull her back and she’d walk me two steps forward.” The woman didn’t say anything. She just kept walking, so Adams kept her arms wrapped around her waist and struggled to pull her back from the kitchen.
“She’s going to get that gun and she’s going to kill that motherfucker and I understood. I understood but I could not let her do that. I could not let her destroy herself, her family, another family.” She said, “While I could feel her pain and empathize completely with her, I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Later, Adams learned that the neighbor who had committed the rape was bragging about it. And the day got worse when detectives handling the case decided to charge him with sexual battery rather than criminal sexual assault. “I was in tears. … I was a rape victim and it was just too fucking personal to me,” said Adams. “It was just too personal. I cussed the sergeant out. I cussed the detective out. I left my partner to handle everything. It was just too much. It was just too much.”
“I miss getting in the car and waiting to see what would happen. Being involved in the moment. Going to wherever the adventure was.” – Merrilee Martin
“I miss my seniors,” said Hanserd.
One of the most gratifying experiences of his career involved a group of senior citizens on 85th and Carpenter. It was a summer day and a group of them wanted to go shopping. Hanserd noticed that more than 30 young men were shooting dice outside the seniors’ home. He approached the teens and told them, “My seniors wanna come out and go grocery shopping and they’re kind of intimidated by you guys at the corner. Plus you shouldn’t be shooting dice anyway.” The teens agreed to move, but Hanserd warned them that if they weren’t gone when he returned, he’s going to lock them all up.
When Hanserd came back, the teens were still at the corner. There were 29 of them — one had run away. He piled them in his squad car — in the backseat, laying on top of each other, sitting out the window. Some of them were walking in front of the car. He marched them from 85th and Carpenter to 85th and Green. “I guess people thought it was a parade,” he said. Hanserd didn’t lock them up, but instead wrote them city complaints — except for the one teen who ran off and got a state disorderly. He said the incident was rewarding because his seniors were “grateful that they can now come on their block and all these guys weren’t out there on the corner shooting dice.” But it was also important because it showed that he was fair. “People knew I was fair,” he said, and for him, being fair was always a priority.
He said his interactions with children were also important because they allowed them “to understand that all policemen are not bad and it gave them a sense of understanding because they had a personal relationship with a policeman.” Hanserd used to give his card to children on his beat and say, “Listen, if you have a problem and the police stop you on the street, show them my card. Tell them he, this guy, is trying to mentor me.”
“I miss being able to help people,” said Hanserd. “Other than that there’s nothing at all.”
Today, Hanserd channels his love for mentoring and helping others through Young Lions of Judah, a not-for-profit multicultural training program he created 10 years ago. One of the catalysts that sparked the program was his son being incarcerated. Hanserd was interested in the forces that pull youth away from their family. Part of the training, he said, is in critical thinking and discipline. “I want to open up African Americans’ perspective of the police,” he said. He’s also writing a non-fiction book that chronicles his journey as a young black man growing up with the “racism, turmoil, and hatred” of white America to becoming a police officer and part of the establishment.
“Do I miss being a police officer? Yes, I do. Yes, I do,” said Martin.
“I miss just getting in the car and waiting to see what’s going to happen. And being involved in the moment. I liked going to whatever the adventure is.” Looking back, she said, “I think I was a good cop. I think I did the best I could in every situation. I came to help out. I didn’t come to cause more chaos or more trouble.”
It was no surprise to learn that Martin had been working security at a large loop hotel, or that she recently resigned to pursue something new. She also practices law part-time. One of her primary areas of interest: cases involving the elderly.
Martin criticized the department’s practice of mandatorily retiring people at 63 and encouraging people to retire early. “The problem is that the people with experience, the people with knowledge, the people who have calmed down a little since coming on the job are now gone … so you have a lot of young kids with less supervision running around.”
She said she’d still be a cop today if she could. The only thing she doesn’t miss: wearing a uniform.
“Absolutely no way. I would not be a Chicago police officer today,” said Adams. She loved being a cop, but there are a lot of things she doesn’t miss: the dirty squad cars, eating cold food, working midnights, and having to go to the police station whenever she had to use the bathroom. Also on the list: “I don’t miss having to stand over a body. … I don’t miss having to guard a crime scene. … I don’t miss the bureaucracy that they were headed towards before I left.”
Adams also doesn’t miss the gulf between the police and the public. “Citizens seem to think that police are their guardians, they’re magicians or superheroes,” she said. “The citizens don’t see them in the police and the police are where they don’t see themselves in the citizens. So it’s very sad.” And, she said, the chasm between people in the community and police officers “has grown wider and wider.”
Being a black police officer “was always hard,” she said. “It is even harder now. Because you have to try to decide, am I going to be black or am I going to be the police?” These questions are not new, she said. “It’s always been hard to be black and be the police and try to decide whether you’re going to allow officers that don’t look like you to abuse their power. And if you do allow them to abuse their power, you have sort of let yourself down by letting your people down.”
Adams said she often hears about this struggle from African American cop friends who are still on the job. “They know that they have to make a decision during the course of their day whether they’re going to be loyal to blue or loyal to black. And they might be loyal to black but they might not get back-up when they need it. Which is kind of scary.”
Still, Adams didn’t waste a beat to say what she does miss about being a Chicago cop. “The opportunity to help people. I really miss that,” she said. “If I got one person out there on the streets to stop and think about where their life was headed … to go in a whole other direction, then I have served a purpose in life and I’m good for that.”
“We are complex people. … Everyone needs to, for a second, take themselves out of their comfort zone … and see what goes on, on the other side of town.” – Donna Adams
Most of our conversations with the ex-cops took place in a small office, not much bigger than most police interview rooms. But for our follow-up interview with Adams, we visited her at her Englewood residence, a two-story house with a white picket fence and a front porch with a bench for sitting and talking to neighbors across the yard.
During almost nine years as a civilian investigator, I’d been inside a lot of homes — bungalows, high-rise condos, the projects. Often, I needed to follow up with people making complaints or, if I was lucky, talk to witnesses. I was used to getting inside — seeing beyond the name on the piece of paper in my file. I often saw where they lived, and how they lived — the family photos on the mantel, kids screaming in the other room, the details of their lives.
But cops were interviewed almost always in one location — across my desk in our unit’s sterile government-green office. They were dressed for the job, carrying their weapon, and often accompanied by an attorney. So, for me, walking into Adams’s home gave us something beyond the opportunity to ask more questions. It was also about texture and context.
We saw the window where Adams placed a firing range target when she first moved on the block. She put it there to send a message to local drug dealers and positioned it so they could “see that I had a nice grouping on that silhouette.” Adams said the dealers needed to understand that there were going to be changes and that the drug selling was going to stop. (“I think I still have it upstairs in my closet if I need to pull it out again.”)
We also got a tour of Adams’s garden. Another not-so-subtle warning to dealers and potential troublemakers was to tell them: “I have a big yard with lots of flowers. … Don’t mess with me. I will plant you in the motherfucking yard.” Today, that garden is a source of pride. And even on the rainy day of our visit, it popped with color — and hope — like a slight oasis. “I have created a sanctuary in the middle of Englewood,” said Adams.
Along with the remnants of her life as an officer, we also got to see the world of Miss Adams: The dining room table where she drinks her tea. The studio in the back where she does her mask-making. And across from her mounted CPD shield and star, a collage of keys in a framed display on the wall. As Adams walked us through her world, she told us about her passion for genealogy and her travels across the country to meet up with newly discovered relatives. She was no longer the victim of bullying racists throwing eggs and rocks at her mother’s house. Her home was standing strong in a sea of chaos. And the daughter of a mother who refused to claim her black identity was exploring her own heritage and planning a birthday sojourn to Africa.
Hanserd said, “My mother used to say that what happens in the dark will always come to light. I told her: ‘Ma, only if you turn the light on.’” I’m not sure how illuminating these stories will be for others. I do know that I learned something — not just about the lives of three ex-police officers or police culture or the complexity of excessive force incidents. These former cops’ stories made me think about my own story — about the limitations of my own perspective and the walls that I sometimes put up between myself and people who are different from me. I was reminded that we’re all outsiders to someone else’s world. And that until we break down the walls, until we turn the light on and see what’s on the other side, we all have the potential to end up like that hate-filled man who sat at my desk all those years ago. That man who still haunts me.