BOB GARFIELD: For some writers, crime is not viewed as a tantalizing mystery, a chance to probe humanity’s dark corners. It’s just death, tragic, and senseless, that the writer must convey in quickly in a few deft strokes. Over last Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, there were 82 shootings, in which 16 people died. Peter Nickeas, the Chicago Tribune’s overnight crime reporter, was on the scene at many of them. The nature of his job is chronic violence, the soundtrack of his nights is the police scanner.
[SCANNER CLIP/VOICE UP & UNDER]:
POLICE OPERATOR: Simulcast we got a person shot, multiple calls, 30-08 East 81st Street. Shots fired originally in exchange. There’s a person shot. There’s still….
PETER NICKEAS: So in the summer, I’ll grab a car, two scanners, a laptop, camera, we’ll head out to 31st and Halsted. It’s safe, it’s near highways. There’s a 24-hour CVS and Dunkin Donuts. The bathrooms are clean. Coffee’s always hot. And these are basic things that are important, if you’re gonna spend 10 hours out, right? Now, if something pops, if there’s a shooting, we’ll go to the shooting. You can count on a certain number of them during a shift.
So the Police Department will give out a script and they’ll say, you know, male 25 found unresponsive at this location, the offender approached on foot, fired shots and fled in a car. There’s probably a lot more to that, but you’re not gonna get it unless you go to the scene. And it may not mean talking to witnesses, because witnesses aren’t often forthcoming. Police get to them often before we do but, you know, you talk to family, to neighbors and residents, piece together what the person’s life may have been like, what the conflict that led to this may be doing to the neighborhood. There are just a lot of ways of looking at violence, other than just what has been traditionally box score type coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: When you are listening to the scanner, do you find yourself zigzagging around the city not sure about which scene to drive to?
PETER NICKEAS: We have nights where it feels like we’re chasing ghosts. There’ll be a night where three-quarters of the victims are walk-in gunshot victims and they leave no crime scene behind, or they, they give a bad location for where they were shot because they don’t want police to find out where they were.
BOB GARFIELD: The cliché is “it was like a war zone” but amid the bullets zinging all around you, it must really seem that way.
PETER NICKEAS: I have never been to war so I don’t want to say that. I’ve been to more than 400 crime scenes over the past couple of years, and this weekend was the absolute first time where I felt like I wasn’t in Chicago. It didn’t feel real. It was weightless. There’s, there’s a helicopter, not just like buzzing on the periphery but like the thump-thump-thump right over you. There’s guys running around in coveralls with rifles, people screaming in the radio that there’s still shooting. And while there’s 150 cops, whatever, around, somebody shot up a house a couple of blocks south, so all the cops go running south - that huge presence, an escalation of force basically from like basic patrol to something more like infantry tactics. There was 30 people shot in 13 hours.
BOB GARFIELD: On nights like you spent the last weekend, are you looking for the particulars of a given story because, after all, these are all individual stories with individual people and individual motives and consequences.
PETER NICKEAS: On a good night, we’ll get to the why, not just the Police Department’s stated version of why, the actual why, you know, which you get from being at a scene, talking to neighbors, relatives, talking to police who can give you more context about things, and then trying to read the neighborhood a little bit, look for gang graffiti, have neighbors point things out to you. When there is that many shootings, we can’t get to the “why.”
BOB GARFIELD: You tend to get impatient when the police and the administration tried constantly to put a given spasm of violence in the context of a lower overall homicide rate. Another thing they do is putting aside urban decay is, is talk about moral decay and suggest that you can only put so many cops on the street but, in the end, it comes down to values.
PETER NICKEAS: As far as “the crime is down” thing, people get annoyed with that specifically because they don’t think it’s necessarily an appropriate response to a tragedy. Usually, the “crime is down” statement follows either a bad weekend or an incident where, you know, somebody that’s just not involved in the drug trade, not involved in gangs gets killed.
As far as the whole values thing, it doesn’t strike me as something somebody would say if they’ve been out there because I – like, I could tell you personally of like witnessing these things, it has an effect on you. If you’re a kid in Englewood, for example – this is a 20-block by 22-block neighborhood that on a normal year could see 30 to 40 homicides – what does that amount of trauma do to your development, growing up in that, where gunfire’s normal, where hearing people screaming is normal, where getting woken up by sirens in the middle of the night. Yeah, I get it, like it’s ultimately an individual’s decision to pull a trigger but there’s more at play there. I don’t think it’s a very nuanced thing to say.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned the effect that this has on children growing up in this environment. What kind of effect does it have on you? Tell me about your soul. Have you any left?
PETER NICKEAS: I – think I have probably less faith in people, in general, than I used to. You know, you see so many bad things, you’re like, okay, you know, people basically will disappoint, given the opportunity. But then like we’ll get to a neighborhood, and I was talking to a woman, she’s like, yeah, my family was the second black family on the block, and we were so proud, like when my parents bought the home, they were doing the American dream thing, right? And she didn’t want to move ‘cause this is her house. So to see people like taking a stand and saying, “No, I’m not gonna let the little gangbangers run me off,” that kind of restores your faith a little bit.
This job has made me hyper-sensitive, I think, to other people’s emotions. If you try to throw up a shield as a defense mechanism, you’re not going to be a good reporter. The stories I’m most proud of, we’re showing moms using a dead kid down the street as a lesson to their kids. You know, you see people praying over their, their dead loved ones, and I think if you just say, “Nope, I gotta steal myself to this, I’m not gonna let it affect me,” you’re not gonna be able to get any of that. So I feel like I’m more able to connect with people than I was before the job, which is a good thing.
Now, I have a hard time sleeping, and I don’t know if it’s because I work overnights and I got to sleep when it’s sunny out or if it’s because of the like I hear scanners when I go to sleep. And then not sleeping aggravates everything else, so like I have a shorter fuse than I used to. And I can keep it in check. Like, I can feel my blood boiling. I don’t punch walls but I can feel myself getting enraged a lot quicker than I used to.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s one episode that you reported on that was just heartbreaking, a father whose son lay dead. He was praying for a miracle. Can you tell me?
PETER NICKEAS: His whole thing was he just wanted to pray over his son. When he approached his supervisor and the detectives and said, I want to, I want to do this, they, they said, “Well, we got to finish our investigation up and then we’ll let you do it,” And so, he stuck around, just like he said he would. When it was clear they were wrapping up, the sergeant walked over to him and he’s like, you know, “How you picture your son right now is not how he looks, and if you go see him, you know, that’s how you’re gonna remember him,” just trying to talk him out of it gently. And he’s like, “No man, I just – I need to pray for my son,” So they walked him over. They didn’t rush him. He stood there, he prayed. And he walked away, and that was it. They called a fire engine to come, hose the blood off the scene, and they hauled him away. When I was debating over whether to write this, what I figured was this was something that anybody who was standing out here, anybody watching from anywhere would have seen. The man was comfortable talking to me. He gave me his name, his phone number. I felt like just observing and writing what I saw, stating it as plainly as possible, without using flowery language, just say what happened, that it would provide a light into these situations for the public, who may not see what it’s like, unless you have somebody there watching and explaining what it’s like for a grieving parent at a crime scene.
BOB GARFIELD: Pete, thank you so much.
PETER NICKEAS: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Nickeas covers nighttime cops for the Chicago Tribune.