Cops Walk Fine Blue Line in Company They Keep

Chicago chief retires over friendship with felon, raising issue many police face.

He strode into the auditorium in his dress blues, his lips pursed, his countenance grim, the silver stars on his collar glinting in the klieg lights.

For five years, Matthew Rodriguez had served as Chicago's police superintendent. He'd overseen steady declines in crime and managed the city's transition to community policing. He'd patrolled the thin blue line between order and chaos in a city better known for the latter.

In the end, it wasn't a recent corruption scandal that prompted his retirement. It wasn't even the "no confidence" vote by the department's rank and file. In the end, this soft-spoken man traded his career for something more elemental: friendship.

"I never looked at him as a felon," Mr. Rodriguez said of Chicago businessman Frank Milito. "I never associated Frank Milito, my friend, with Frank Milito, someone convicted of a felony."

Although Rodriguez admitted his 30-year relationship with Mr. Milito violates a longstanding rule of Chicago police conduct, his departure, announced last week, raises a troubling question. As more American cities establish neighborhood foot patrols and require officers to live in the communities they protect, how far should cops at all levels be expected to go to avoid associating with criminals?

"Rules like this can put police in a difficult position," says Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. "Part of the job is to know who your neighbors are and to cultivate informers. I don't know how police can do their jobs without having contact with people who have sleazy records."

Most departments in the US forbid officers from fraternizing with felons. Chicago instituted its rule during Prohibition, when police and mobsters often worked hand in hand to foster gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging.

In later years, experts say, cities like New York and Chicago began discouraging police from living in the neighborhoods they patrolled. Although the exodus of city cops to the suburbs eased corruption problems, they say, it also left police with less of a personal stake in city life.

Today, the pendulum has swung back.

A recent FBI survey found that nearly 80 percent of the nation's police departments have initiated some form of community-oriented policing.

President Clinton's crime program has helped hire thousands of new officers, and several big municipalities have reinstated residency requirements. Researchers credit these techniques, in part, for declining crime rates nationwide.

But these new strategies have brought cops and criminals closer together. Here in Chicago, a city long characterized by its tightly knit working-class neighborhoods, such proximity can produce painful dilemmas. It's not uncommon for childhood friends or even siblings from these ethnic enclaves to wind up on opposite sides of the law.

"You have policemen whose brothers are priests," says Tom Deacy, a silver-haired Chicago policeman escorting a handcuffed suspect into the 42nd Precinct on the city's North side. "If they're not priests they could be mafia. You don't give up your brother, or refuse to talk to him for what he does, but you would have to somewhat distance yourself."

Others are less certain.

"It's ridiculous," says Dennis McNaly, a Chicago patrolman and 20-year veteran. "I've got a lot of friends who are not outstanding citizens, but how am I supposed to know my friend's a felon unless he tells me?

"What about my children," Officer McNaly continues. "Am I supposed to disassociate myself from them if they get in trouble?"

By all accounts, Rodriguez never hid his friendship with Milito, who served nine months in prison in 1986 after convictions on two counts of mail fraud. Yet most observers believe Rodriguez should have cooled the friendship after learning Milito was questioned by the FBI in connection with the unsolved 1987 slaying of an Amoco Oil Co. executive.

Instead, Rodriguez went with Milito on a tour of Israel in 1993, and the two men were frequently seen together at Orso's, a North-side Italian restaurant owned by Milito. Near the restaurant's front door, there are several inscribed photographs of Rodriguez. "Frank," one of the captions reads, "You have bridged that gap between a friend and a brother."

Although Rodriguez had mentioned the friendship to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the mayor says he didn't know Milito had been questioned in a homicide case. Earlier this month, despite challenges to Rodriguez's leadership from the police union, and an ongoing corruption scandal in one West-side precinct, Daley stood by his appointee.

On the podium last Friday, Rodriguez said he decided to retire when he realized that media reports about Milito's past had undermined the mayor's confidence in him. "I saw some concern and a little sadness in the mayor in our discussion," Rodriguez said.

Reaction to Rodriguez's departure has been mixed. Dick Ward, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says Rodriguez's accomplishments shouldn't be dimmed by this "Achilles heel." If anything, Mr. Ward says, the situation should convince police officials to conduct more thorough background checks of aspiring officers.

Although she admires Rodriguez's record, DePaul University sociologist Rosemary Bannon offers little sympathy.

"All police, not just top officials, have access to confidential information, and their power to influence people is self-evident," she says. "Police have temptations, but professionalism has to come first. They know when they're walking a fine line."

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