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Sunday Sitdown with Richard Wooten, newly retired Chicago cop

Officer Richard Wooten, center, with fellow Auburn-Gresham District Officers JJulius Beacham, left, and Jonathan Ho at Wooten's Aug. 15 retirement party. On Aug. 24, Ho was killed iwhen another driver struck him as he rode his motorcycle while off-duty. Photo courtesy of Melanie Brown

At his Chicago Police Department retirement party last month, Richard Wooten reflected with fellow 6th District Officer Jonathan Ho about the burden of the badge he’d turned in.

A week later, Ho, 35, was struck and killed by another vehicle while riding his motorcycle off-duty.

Raised in Auburn-Gresham, Wooten, 50, spent 23 years with CPD after serving in the Army. He worked in Englewood and Auburn-Gresham, in patrol, tactical and Community Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) units.

He spoke with reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika about life on the job he’s just left behind. An edited transcript follows.

“As an officer, you lay your life on the line every day for people, yet your life can be taken so quickly.

“Officers assigned to Englewood used to be known as the Englewood Rangers. Every situation was there — from armed robberies to homicides to dealing with the drug boys on the streets.

“Second day on the job, I got my first homicide. The victim had been involved in a domestic where she’d left the baby’s daddy and was staying at a friend’s house. He found out where she was, came over and the friend wouldn’t let him in. But he acted so sincere, the victim finally said, ‘Let him in.’

“Paramedics said he’d stabbed her, puncturing her heart. I can still hear her four children crying, “Mama! Mama!” And the friend repeating, ‘I shouldn’t have let him in.’

“There were fun days, like the rainy day my partner and I ran a license plate in traffic and discovered the car stolen. We turn on our lights. On a dead-end street with no way out, two teens jumped out and begin running. So did we.

Richard Wooten.

“Me and my partner, no matter who we chased, we always ended up catching them. Before the first guy hit the alley, we had him. The second guy, we chased through a slippery field a block and a half.

“When we walked in to the station with them, we were caked in mud from our shoes to our necks. The entire station was laughing at us, congratulating us at the same time.

“I remember when the Englewood Rangers ran into a burning senior and disabled citizens building at 71st and Vincennes. It was engulfed, people at windows. Every officer started running in. My partner and I pulled out a little old lady in a wheelchair, carrying her chair down the stairs, then guided out an elderly gentleman.

“We were recognized by the department. It was a wonderful feeling to be receiving my first Lifesaving Award in a ceremony with the superintendent and mayor. I was so excited. I loaded up the family and was on my way. Then, my car broke down, and I missed the ceremony. But I’ll never forget that feeling.

“While working tactical in Auburn-Gresham, we had a rash of unsolved armed robberies. The community was really complaining. The commander asked me and my partner to take it. A lot of the robberies had no offender descriptions, so we started trying to find patterns. It’s like putting a puzzle together. We then compiled a photo array and revisited victims, and, lo and behold, they were able to ID at least 12 people involved. We started locking ’em up.

“They reassigned me from tactical to CAPS at a time when the community was at odds with the police. Of the 25 districts, we were at No. 16 in community engagement. I had to come up with a way to get people more engaged.

“Living in the community, I understood what they were going through. I was eventually able to make them understand: ‘Police can’t save us. Only we can.’ Within seven years, we were No. 2 in community engagement.

“Nowadays, people will challenge you in a heartbeat. Communities are so economically destroyed that people are much more agitated, aggressive. People don’t care about going to jail any more. More mentally ill are walking the streets. There’s no athletic or other programs to involve kids in, and that’s what the streets offer them.

“We have a lot of great police officers on the job. There are only a few that make us look bad. We have a great deal of officers here who do care.

“The risk to life, the thought, is always there. You try not to think that way, but it exists. If you go into any call thinking, ‘This could be my last domestic’ or ‘What if?’ you’ve already lost the battle.”