A day with U. Darby's tough cop
Mike Chitwood will celebrate his 50th year in law enforcement this April, and he's still not the top cop in his hometown. Go figure.
The unspoken message in author Harold I. Gullan's new biography, Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the 'Scumbags,' is that this son of South Philadelphia has spent decades preparing himself for the role of Philadelphia police commissioner.
"There's a tragedy in every triumph," Gullan said in a phone interview of Chitwood's heroic, troubled, and ultimately vindicated and celebrated career as a street cop, highway patrolman, homicide detective, hostage negotiator, and suburban and big-city police chief. "He'd have made a great police commissioner."
"What do they call you here? Chief?" I asked Chitwood as he drove through the well-tended and sometimes mean streets of Upper Darby Township (population 85,000) one recent cold midweek night. "The title here is superintendent," he said.
I couldn't help but notice that his men call him "Mike." Even the young and awkward ones who shook a tagalong reporter's hand before a multi-vehicle drug raid on a suspect's home in Drexel Hill.
In Upper Darby, much like Middletown Township, Bucks County, or Portland, the largest city in Maine - jurisdictions where Chitwood served as top cop since leaving Philadelphia in 1984 to advance his career - drugs are, were, and continue to be the root cause of most criminal acts.
Drugs of all kinds - heroin of course, but more and more prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Percocet. If not the illegality of the drugs themselves, it's the criminal acts committed by people to acquire them.
Our suspect is 23 years old. He is, as one Upper Darby detective described him, "preppie-looking." Short hair. Neat beard. When he was arrested the first time on Jan. 3, he was wearing a black Batman T-shirt. Taking up most of his right forearm, police photos show, was the word "Integrity." On his left forearm was the word "Loyalty."
He had been arrested the first time for stealing bronze mausoleum doors from an Upper Darby cemetery. He was being arrested this time for stealing bronze mausoleum doors from a cemetery in neighboring Yeadon.
"The estimated value of the doors was $62,000," Chitwood said as we arrived in a four-car caravan. "The kid sold them to a scrap yard for, maybe, if even, $800."
Inside the house on Myrtlewood Avenue, after several knocks that drew the neighbors to their doors, the suspect's sisters answered. Chitwood followed his officers into the house.
The sisters said their brother had been an honor roll student until he got addicted to "percs," or Percocet, a year before. "It doesn't take long," Chitwood said.
The suspect was not present, but there were two bedroom doors on the second floor that were locked. The police warrant was for the suspect, not the entire house, so the daughters called their mother, who was getting her hair done, to come home with the keys.
I stood there on the second floor with Highway Patrol Officer Frank Devine, who was guarding the suspect's room and listening for sounds of movement. The house stunk so badly from cat urine I thought my eyeballs would peel off.
"Have you ever caught a suspect hiding inside a room after so long a wait?" I asked Devine. He described finding a suspect with his nose pressed up against the plastic bottom of a box spring when they flipped it over after a 15-minute search of a tiny room.
Upper Darby Police Capt. George Rhoades, the 33-year veteran who led the raid, arrived on the second floor with the keys delivered by Mom, who could be heard chatting matter-of-factly with Chitwood downstairs.
Guns drawn, the captain put the key in the lock. "I'll take the lead," he said. "Good," said the young cop. "I'll use you as a shield." I would describe the looks that followed between them as like father to son, but that would do justice to neither.
The suspect was not in the box spring - he turned himself in the next day - and off we went. Chitwood, the "most decorated police officer in Philadelphia history," was driving through the ridiculously shaped township of 8.3 square miles, where it's impossible to get anywhere without driving through another municipality.
On a map, Upper Darby resembles an angular left-handed sock puppet about to devour an oddly shaped cookie hanging alone a few inches away. That cookie is called Pine Hills, and it's where a man and his dog named Baby had been killed by a hit-and-run driver a few weeks earlier while on a walk.
Several motorists drove past the human and canine bodies without stopping. Chitwood, as he has always done, put into words the outrage cops and everyone else feel at such times. Of course, his words made the papers.
Once again, "Publicity seems to seek him out," said his biographer, Gullan. Controversy, too. You can't swing a dead cat in Philadelphia without running into some cop who resents Chitwood for being famous for being a good cop. And, like dead cats, you can't find one who will say it on the record.
"Eff 'em," said Chitwood when I asked about that. "They never helped me when I needed it."
It's tough being a tough cop. But then, when wasn't it?
Clark Deleon's column appears regularly in Currents. firstname.lastname@example.org