J.J. Bittenbinder, colorful ex-Chicago police detective and crime-prevention guru, dead at 80

He taught people how to avoid being crime victims on TV’s ‘Tough Target’ and ‘Street Smarts’ and in a popular book. He also gave safety presentations at schools.

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Crime expert J.J. Bittenbinder delivers common sense advice to a audience, gathered at Provena Mercy center in Aurora Monday night May 4, 1998.

Crime expert J.J. Bittenbinder delivers common-sense advice to an audience at Provena Mercy Center in Aurora in 1998. The retired Chicago police detective gave people the tools to survive attempted kidnapping, rape and robbery. His style and mannerisms were also fodder for comedians.

Sun-Times file

John Joseph “J.J.” Bittenbinder might have saved your life.

In the 1990s, the colorful former Chicago police detective showed viewers how to avoid being kidnapped as host of the “Tough Target” TV show and told kids how to stay safe from muggers in his PBS “Street Smarts” specials.

His programs, which featured crime victims recounting their ordeals, were simultaneously terrifying and informative.

With his fuzzy walrus mustache, colloquial yet entertaining speaking style and bespoke three-piece suits, Mr. Bittenbinder could have been playing a character on air.

But the man on the screen was very real, as was his commitment to making the world a safer place.

“He was larger than life in everything that he did,” his wife Sally Bittenbinder said. “He was very committed to his family and to the community at large.”

Mr. Bittenbinder died May 26 with his family present. He was 80.

He was a graduate of the former DePaul Academy in Lincoln Park and attended DePaul University. He served four years in the Marine Corps and worked in retail sales before joining the Chicago Police Department in 1971.

He helped investigate thousands of cases as a homicide detective before retiring in 1994. During the investigation of the Tylenol murders in 1982, Mr. Bittenbinder was a liaison between the FBI and Chicago police.

Mr. Bittenbinder began giving talks on how to avoid being victims of rape or robbery a few years after working in the police department’s violent crimes division.

The things he he’d seen “prompted him to try and see if he could make a difference in people’s lives so that they too wouldn’t become victims,” his wife said.

In a Chicago Sun-Times interview in 1991, Mr. Bittenbinder explained what he told an audience at his presentations.

“I tell how the bad guys go for the weakest-looking ones, always,” he said. “ We’re not talking about offenders with Mensa cards in their pockets. We’re talking animal instincts. I basically tell them how to extricate themselves. I give them practical things. Lightbulbs go on. I’ve been doing this 10 years.”

He’d give talks wherever anybody would listen: banks, hospitals, church groups.

“You put 10 women in a kitchen; I come and talk to them,” Mr. Bittenbinder said. “If I prevent one rape, I do a good job.”

In 1997, Mr. Bittenbinder’s book “Tough Target: A Street-Smart Guide to Staying Safe” was a critical and sales hit. He also appeared as a crime expert on CNN, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Primetime Live.”

Mr. Bittenbinder also visited schools in the Chicago area, giving children practical tips on how to get out of dangerous situations.

“Of all the things you can tell a kid, the most important is when they’re approached, they should run,” Mr. Bittenbinder said. “Never again will they be able to run as fast as they can now. But you’ve got to tell them to drop the books.”

One of those visits was lampooned by Chicago native John Mulaney in 2018, briefly bringing Mr. Bittenbinder back into the national spotlight. The comedian parodied Mr. Bittenbinder’s safety presentation at his elementary school assembly in his standup comedy special “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City.”

J.J. Bittenbinder gives a safety talk Monday night March 10, 2008 at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Illinois. av031008 TIN_jjb_P2/news folder Photo By: Art Vassy/SouthtownSta

Former Chicago police Det. J.J. Bittenbinder gives a safety talk at Prairie State College in 2008. “I tell how the bad guys go for the weakest-looking ones, always.”

Sun-Times file

“We had the same stranger-danger speaker every year when I was a kid,” Mulaney told the audience. “His name was Detective J.J. Bittenbinder. Go ahead and laugh. His name is ridiculous.

“By the way, Detective J.J. Bittenbinder wore three-piece suits. He also wore a pocket watch. Two years in a row, he wore a cowboy hat. He also had a huge handlebar mustache. None of that matters, but it’s important to me that you know that.”

The comedian said Mr. Bittenbinder told the kids to carry a money clip with $50 in it and that, if someone tries to rob them, they should say, “You want my money, go get it” and throw the money clip and run away.

Sally Bittenbinder said her husband didn’t appreciate Mulaney’s exaggerated retelling of his presentation, that he thought it downplayed the serious message he was trying to convey.

“He felt that it wasn’t fair to water down his message,” she said. “It was one thing to poke fun of him, but he felt that to make fun of what he was trying to do in terms of the messaging wasn’t fair. He felt that [Mulaney] made a mockery of something he believed in.”

Mr. Bittenbinder’s style was so distinctive that he also inspired a sketch on the cult favorite 1990s comedy program “Mr Show.” Bob Odenkirk portrayed F.F. Woodycooks, mustachioed crime show television host, who was a parody of the striking detective and his show.

“He was a kind and thoughtful person,” Sally Bittenbinder said. “He was one of the first who championed people not being victims and really having a plan. He tried to do the right thing.”

Visitation for Mr. Bittenbinder will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Ryan-Parke Funeral Home in Park Ridge.

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