After 10 years with the Evanston Police Department, after three years as a police officer at Northeastern Illinois University, Martin Neal left law enforcement to pursue a career in the printing industry.
He grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and Auburn Gresham estates, neighborhoods he called “the worst of the worst.” He graduated from Hyde Park High School on Chicago’s South Side in 2004 and is married with two children.
Neal, 36, said he was proud of his time as a police officer and that during his tenure he had seen many changes for better and for worse in law enforcement. His last day with Evanston’s department was in early September. Pioneer Press spoke with Neal about his years with the department and how the police have changed.
Why did you become a policeman?
I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t like the way I saw the police interacting with people and dealing with people, especially minorities where I grew up. I made the decision that I was going to do better if I had the chance.
How were your first days as a police officer?
There are so many different things happening around you that you cling to life. You’re happy to be a police officer, but at the same time, you’re trying to soak it all up and do what you need to do to pass probation. Much of what you do is guided and there’s plenty of hands-on throughout to make sure you don’t mess up anything too serious. You learn as you go.
What investigations or cases do you remember most vividly?
As a Patroller, you don’t get into things that are too heavy for the most part. I had the traffic arrests, the minor cannabis arrests, the minor drug arrests. I will never forget my first death inquest. It was nothing crazy by any stretch of the imagination. After probation, you are on your own and have to make crucial decisions yourself. This is when you really have the opportunity to flourish.
Is there a sense of satisfaction in police work?
It gives you a lot of satisfaction. Much like a professional baseball player, you’re just trying to prove you belong. In my original interview, I said I’m here to prove to anyone on this hiring committee that I’m good enough to be an Evanston police officer.
How has policing changed since you arrived at Evanston Department in 2012?
The climate towards the police has changed. The laws have changed. You have different state attorneys, different judges, different defense attorneys showing up and they all have an opinion on how the world should work. Cook County has always “tried”, to say the least. Obviously, with some of the new laws and the anti-police climate, it’s very difficult to be a police officer these days.
What is the best advice you have received as an officer and who gave it to you?
I had good trainers in the field. They told me to come in and be who I wanted to be and stand up for what I wanted to stand up for. I think we had a lot of supportive supervisors early in my career who really supported what we were doing and encouraged us to do well. I have to give an honorable mention to [Evanston police department Sergeant] Tracy Williams, because he not only talked, he walked, and I admired him in so many ways.
When I arrived, it was a time when you were encouraged to be a policeman. You were encouraged to go out and make gun arrests, make drug arrests. Stop crime while it’s happening and stop crime before it happens. Those first five to seven years of my career were all about getting out there and being a police officer.
What advice would you give to newcomers to the profession?
Make sure you never feel trapped in this job. Unfortunately, in my career, I have had colleagues who committed suicide. They felt trapped to be policemen and they had no other choice. With the changing “climate” when it comes to policing, the one thing you can take away from me is that I didn’t get trapped in the Evanston Police Department. I made my way.
Police departments across the country are struggling in the face of citizen protests against what they say is excessive force by the police. What do you think of all this?
I don’t mean that all of this is excessive force. There are certainly cases where I will be the first to tell you that there are. There are times when I can tell you that the agent did exactly what he was supposed to do in that particular situation. There was no possibility of going in any other direction. I grew up in some of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago, so I’ve seen things done poorly. In my 13 years on the job, I’ve seen some things wrong and some other things and I’m like “it’s true”. Body cameras definitely helped.
What are your parting thoughts on leaving law enforcement?
Bitter sweet. There’s a lot of ‘I wish I could – would – should – things.’ Like everything in life, you take it as a learning lesson. They say time goes very fast, but I spent about seven or eight years and said I couldn’t do thirty. I was always building something out of Evanston Police. I said I’m doing my 10 and walked out. I retired with the distinction of being a police officer. I was not someone who came and did the bare minimum. I went out every day with a “I fight crime” mindset. I have to prevent crime before it happens. I have to protect the citizens who do not want to be protected and those who want to be protected. Looking back on that trip, I will forever be proud to have served as a police officer.
Brian L. Cox is a freelance journalist at Pioneer Press.