Kicking the Pigeon #6: “Bridgeport”

Officers Seinitz, Savickas, Stegmiller, Utreras, and Schoeff were, until recently, familiar presences at Stateway Gardens and other South Side public housing developments. With the exception of Seinitz who is known as “Macintosh,” they are referred to on the street not by their names but as “the skullcap crew” (they often wear watch caps) or “the skinhead crew” (several have buzz cuts). They are reputed to prey on the drug trade–routinely extorting money, drugs, and guns from drug dealers–in the guise of combating it. But what distinguishes them, above all, say residents, is their racism. Several are rumored to have swastika tattoos on their bodies. One resident described them to me as “KKK under blue-and-white.” And black officers have been heard to refer to them as “that Aryan crew.” “They get their jollies humiliating black folks,” a former Stateway resident told me. “They get off on it.”

Diane Bond, in the aftermath of her encounters with the crew, seemed stunned by the ferocity of their racism. “Me, I don’t see no color, but they’re prejudiced,” she observed. “I hear they’re from Bridgeport.”

Bridgeport

The officers were in fact assigned at the time to the Public Housing South unit of the Chicago Police Department. Until it was disbanded in the fall of 2004, Public Housing South operated out of offices at 38th and Cottage Grove in the Ida B. Wells development. The rumor that they were “from Bridgeport” was telling. For Stateway residents, “Bridgeport” carries a heavy freight of meanings and associations. It refers to the traditional seat of political power in the city. It evokes an intimate landscape containing great distances: Bridgeport is just across the Dan Ryan Expressway but a world away. And it recalls a bitter history of racial violence that includes among its defining events the 1919 riots when 4,000 blacks massed at 35th and State to defend their neighborhood against marauding white gangs, and the cruel 1997 beating that left Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old Stateway boy who had ventured into Bridgeport on his bicycle, brain damaged.

There is knowledge on the street about the skullcap crew; it resides in people’s nerve endings; it flows readily between those who share a body of experience and a common language. The Bridgeport rumor reflects an effort to make sense of that knowledge by constructing a context around it. It’s an effort to place the crew. Such attempts at explanation can give rise to rumors and, at least in the case of “Macintosh,” to urban myths. (Last year when he was not seen at Stateway for several weeks, competing rumors circulated to explain his absence: he had been arrested in a federal sting operation; he had left the police force to become a bounty hunter; and he had gone to Iraq to fight as a mercenary.) Yet the challenge presented by the knowledge of the street remains.

As a reporter, I confront a similar challenge: to place the skullcap crew within broader contexts that help explain what at first seems inexplicable. Assume for the moment that Diane Bond’s account is true. What possible rationale could there be for members of the skullcap crew to repeatedly invade her home and her body? These incidents have come to public attention because of the circumstance–highly unusual in the setting of public housing–that Bond has relationships that enabled her to get skilled lawyers to take her case. It should not be assumed because the incidents have come to light that they are the worst crimes the crew committed during the years they worked in South Side public housing communities. They may not even be the worst crimes they committed on the dates in question.

Against this background and making these assumptions, we will explore the multiple contexts that frame the Diane Bond story. Those contexts include “the war on drugs” as waged in Chicago public housing, the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, and the policies and practices of the CPD with respect to complaints of police misconduct. At the center of this narrative inquiry is the question: if a group of rogue police officers operated for years in Chicago public housing with impunity, what conditions would be required to make possible their criminal careers?

To be continued…