Profile view of Northbrook Police Officer Angelo Wells as he wears his uniform and drives around on patrol, seen from the passenger seat.

Northbrook Police Officer Angelo Wells on patrol June 5. Wells was shot in the leg while responding to a domestic disturbance Aug. 5, 2020, in South Lawndale while on duty for the Chicago Police Department.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A bullet to the leg put a Chicago police officer on the path to the suburbs

Angelo Wells loved being a Chicago police officer. Then one night in 2020, his femur was shattered by gunfire in North Lawndale. Recovery took a year and pointed him toward Northbrook.

“I am God!” the big man screamed out the window of an apartment in the 1300 block of South Lawndale Avenue. “I am the man!”

Then, he started singing.

What the Chicago Police Department calls a “domestic disturbance.” A particularly dangerous situation for police to walk into, accounting for nearly a quarter of the murders in Chicago.

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Officer Angelo Wells Jr. and his partner had just come off a call and were leaving the 10th District station. They headed to the scene. Four more officers arrived. It was just after 3 a.m. Aug. 5, 2020.

“Why don’t you come down and talk to us?” Wells called up, framing the 33-year-old man in his flashlight beam. The man, on PCP, stopped singing, and started spitting at them.

“Are you guys going to come up and help me?” a woman yelled from somewhere inside the apartment. A Chicago Fire Department ambulance arrived. Wells walked over to brief the paramedics on the situation.

Five shots, in quick succession. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Wells took cover behind the ambulance.

“Get down,” he yelled, “Get out. Go go go.” So the ambulance did, toward Douglas, leaving Wells exposed. Thirteen more shots were squeezed off. In two years on the force, Wells had previously been exposed to gunfire six times. The seventh proved unlucky — as he ran for cover, one bullet entered his right thigh and shattered his femur.

“I’m hit,” Wells shouted.

Making him one of the 2,587 Chicagoans shot but not killed that year — including 10 police officers — and changing the direction of his life.

Rebuilding a leg, and a life

About 25 miles and a world away from the 10th District lies the leafy suburb of Northbrook, where the police department is holding 5:30 p.m. roll call for five uniformed officers. Wells is one of them. The events of the past 24 hours — a beautiful early June day in 2024 — are reviewed. A woman locked out of her house. A man who thought people were following him committed himself to a mental hospital. An iPad disappeared from an office. A car blocking a driveway.

How did Wells get here?

“After the incident happened I had to figure out what my purpose was,” he said. “I had to reevaluate a lot of things with my life, especially with my oldest two kids. Because they were old enough at that time to realize what happened to me. My son, my 11-year-old, was 8 at the time. To hear him crying over the phone, thinking something was going to happen to me. My son didn’t want me to do this anymore. I told him to trust my decision.”

Immediately after the shooting, fellow officers bundled Wells, in agony — “it felt like someone set me on fire” he said — into a squad car that backed up toward the ambulance, which sped him to Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Surgeons picked pieces of his cell phone out of his leg — the round pierced his phone, in the pocket of his cargo pants — and put in a steel rod that went from his hip to his knee, then screwed together his leg bone. They left in the 9mm slug — too close to nerves and blood vessels to risk removing.

Then the hard part began.

“The day after the surgery they gave me a walker and said, ‘We know you’re in pain. We gotta get you on your feet and get your muscles going again,’” Wells remembered. “As soon as I tried it, and stood up, they had to catch me. I passed out because it hurt so much.”

He was in the hospital for a week, on the walker for six weeks. Two months melted into four, which melted into six.

“They had goals for me to meet, but I wasn’t meeting those goals,” he said.

His body healed slowly; his mind, slower.

“I was in a dark place, emotionally,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m a good person. I have kids. I treat people fair. I don’t do this job to mistreat people. And this happened to me.’ I was traumatized.”

Rehab was two days a week. Other days he would watch TV or sit on the front porch. Fellow cops, particularly classmates from the academy, would come to sit with him.

Eight months became 10. Wells felt “like I’m still crippled.”

Officer Angelo Wells, in uniform, sits in the driver's seat of his patrol car and types into a computer.

Officer Angelo Wells stops a vehicle with one headlight while on patrol in Northbrook. Wells was shot in the leg, fracturing his femur, while on duty for the Chicago Police Department. He struggled to return to CPD, going through nearly a near of physical therapy, but ultimately opted to work in the northern suburb, as have seven other former CPD officers. A recent opening on the Northbrook police drew 40 applications from Chicago cops.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Two days shy of the year anniversary of the shooting, Wells put his uniform back on.

“That felt weird,” he said. “Knowing that the last time I put on the uniform, I got shot ... I was nervous. I felt I lost my edge.”

He wondered whether he belonged here anymore.

“I don’t go to church, but I do have a relationship with God,” Wells said. “And I sat back, and was talking: ‘Should I remain here? Show me a sign.’ My very first call back to work was the same place I got shot. Same building. Everybody that was working that day showed up, because they knew.”

That coincidence sealed it.

“What are the odds of that happening?” he asked. “I was like, I’m going to take a leap of faith. I had fun. Let’s see if I can be the police somewhere else and actually enjoy it.”

Five months later, in March 2022, he joined the Northbrook Police Department.

‘It’s a different way of policing’

Roll call ended. Time to go to work.

“That’s all I’ve got,” says Northbrook Police Department Chief Chris Kennedy, himself a former Chicago cop — 29 years on the force, rising to Deputy Chief of Counterterrorism and Special Ops.

What’s the difference between policing in Chicago and Northbrook?

“Some of it is, ‘Same department, different patch,’” he replied. “A lot of commonalities. But the biggest change is the focus on service. In Chicago, you come from such a fast pace. Even when you’re trying to do a good job, whatever your position is, it’s on to the next. Whatever level you’re at. If you’re in a beat car on the West Side, it’s the next job. If you’re a sergeant or lieutenant, it’s on to the next special event downtown. It was always the next, the next, the next. Here you have the luxury of time.”

“It’s a different way of policing,” agreed Wells. “Here they allow you to work the case, if you want to. Which preps you to be a detective. In Chicago, you do the preliminary investigation and hand it over. Out here, you have time. Canvas the area, find any type of footage, identify what we’re looking for. I love it.”

Officer Angelo Wells chats with Chief Christopher Kennedy inside an office room at the Northbrook Police Department.

Northbrook Police Officer Angelo Wells chats with Chief Christopher Kennedy after roll call at the Northbrook Police Department on June 5. Wells, like Kennedy, used to serve in the Chicago Police Department. Now, they are among eight former CPD officers working in the northern suburb.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Kennedy has been in Northbrook for three years — in that time, nobody has ever been shot at, never mind shot. Compare that to the city, where 80 cops were shot at the year Wells took a round. Kennedy compares that to when he was in the 11th District on the West Side.

“I remember times where there was a shooting on every beat, on every watch for a whole day,” he said.

Eight former CPD officers now work in Northbrook, which recently had 40 Chicago officers apply for one vacant position. Many other suburbs include former CPD officers on their forces.

Wells grabs his gear and heads out to a marked Dodge SUV. Today he is roving, cruising the smooth, uncracked, tree-lined street. He checks the computer systems. His car automatically scans any license plate that comes into view.

“My goal is to be a proactive police officer,” he says. “If there are people speeding, or expired/suspended plates, and I can basically act on that, then I do. I have a high activity in traffic stops, traffic arrests. That’s the Chicago in me. In Chicago, you’re always busy. I apply that out here.”

He does a lot of traffic stops — expired stickers, speeding. But tends to let motorists off with a warning if their records are clean.

He has zero regrets about leaving the city.

“You were always working. I decided, ‘I can’t do this.’ I wanted better. I want to enjoy my life, my family. I want to see my kids grow up.”

On patrol, greeted by smiles

He pulls up at a light. A woman in the car to his right sees him, her face lights up in a smile, and she waves broadly.

“It’s so different here,” he says. “A different way of living, a different way of being.”

Wells is the only Black cop on the 65-officer department.

“Even though everything nowadays is all about race, race, race, I haven’t had an encounter” from either the public or his colleagues, he said. It was different in the city.

“I was an officer in a Black neighborhood, and I was called every name in the book,” he said, providing several examples, all unprintable. “I was called all these names.”

Would he ever consider going back to the CPD?

“No,” he said, immediately. “Working every day. No days off. Then the shootings, shootings, shootings.”

Northbrook Police Officer Angelo Wells, in uniform, smiles broadly and waves to a child in the back seat of a white vehicle after stopping it for speeding.

Northbrook Police Officer Angelo Wells waves to a child in the back seat after stopping a vehicle for speeding.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A call comes in — two men approached the door of a house on Oak Avenue. The owner didn’t open it, but called police. Wells and a trio of other officers talk to Corey and Trevor — at least that’s what they say their names are. They are representatives of Blue Raven Solar, talking up the wonders of solar power. But they won’t show ID.

“I didn’t do anything,” says one. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” One officer explains that, in the village of Northbrook, soliciting without a permit is a crime. They counter that they are not collecting money, hence, are not soliciting. They talk for 20 minutes while cicadas whir.

Back in the car, I marvel at the officers’ patience. Why not cuff these guys and haul them in?

“They were compliant,” says Wells.

I step away to quiz the two Blue Raven employees, ambling away. They say they felt “intimidated” by the officers, except for Angelo Wells.

“I definitely felt respected by him,” says one. “He was cool.”

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