After 10 years with the Evanston police department, following three years as a police officer with Northeastern Illinois University, Martin Neal is leaving law enforcement to pursue a career in the printing business.
He grew up in the Cabrini-Green and Auburn Gresham housing projects in Chicago, 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’s proud of his time as a police officer and that during his tenure, he has seen many changes for the better and worse in law enforcement. His last day with the Evanston department was in early September. Pioneer Press spoke with Neal about his years with the department and how policing has changed.
Why did you become a police officer?
I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t like the way that I saw the police interact with people and handle people, specifically minorities where I grew up. I made the decision I was going to do better if I was given the opportunity.
What were your first days as a police officer like?
There’s so many different things going on around you you’re just hanging on for dear life. You’re happy to be a police officer but at the same time you’re trying to soak it all in and do what you gotta do to get past probation. So much of what you do is guided and there’s a lot of hand-holding throughout the process to make sure that you don’t mess up anything too bad. You learn as you go.
What are some of the investigations or cases you remember most vividly?
As a patrolman, you don’t get into too much heavy stuff for the most part. I had the traffic arrests, the petty cannabis arrests, petty drug arrests. I’ll never forget my first death investigation. It was nothing crazy by any stretch of the imagination. After probation, you’re on your own and you have to make critical decisions on your own. That’s when you really get the opportunity to blossom.
Is there a sense of satisfaction in police work?
It gives you a lot of satisfaction. Just like a professional ball player, you’re kind of just trying to prove you belong. In my original interview process, I said I’m here to prove to whoever’s on this hiring committee that I am good enough to be an Evanston police officer.
How has policing changed since you came to the Evanston department in 2012?
The climate toward the police has changed. Laws changed. You have different States Attorneys, different judges, different defense attorneys who come along and they all have an opinion of the way the world should work. Cook County’s always been ‘trying’ to say the least. Obviously with some of the new laws and the anti police climate it makes it very difficult to be a police officer now a days.
What is some of the best advice you’ve been given as an officer and who gave it to you?
I had some good field training officers. They told me to come in and be who I wanted to be and to stand for what I wanted to stand for. I think we’ve had a lot of supportive supervisors early in my career that really supported what we did and encouraged us to do well. I gotta give an honorable mention to [Evanston police department Sergeant] Tracy Williams, because he not only talked the talk but he walked the walk and I admired him in so many ways.
When I first came on, it was a time in which you were encouraged to be the police. 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 really dedicated to going out and being the police.
What advice would you give rookies new to the job?
Make sure you never feel like you’re trapped in this job. Unfortunately, in my career I’ve had co-workers who have committed suicide. They felt they were trapped being the police and they didn’t have any options. With the change of ‘climate’ going on towards the police, the one thing you can take from me is that I didn’t allow myself to become trapped in the Evanston police department. I made a way.
Police departments across the country are struggling in the face of citizen protests against what they say is excessive force by police. What are your thoughts on all of that?
I don’t want to say all of it is excessive force. There are definitely some instances where I’ll be the first one to tell you there’s some. There are times when I can tell you the officer did exactly what they were supposed to in that particular situation. There was no opportunity to go another way. I grew up in some of the worst areas of Chicago so I’ve seen things not done right. In my 13 years on the job, I’ve seen some things that were not right and other things and I’m like ‘that’s right.’ Body cameras without a doubt have helped.
What are your parting thoughts as you leave law enforcement?
Bitter sweet. There’s a lot of things ‘I wish I could of — would of — should of.’ Just like everything in life, you just kind of take it as a learning lesson. They say time goes by really fast but I got about seven or eight years in and I said I can’t do thirty years. I was always building something outside of Evanston police. I said I’m doing my 10 and I’m out. I retired with the distinction of being a police officer. I wasn’t someone who came in and did the bare minimum. I went out every day with the mindset of ‘I’m fighting crime.’ I have to prevent crime before it happens. I have to protect the citizens who don’t want to be protected and those who want to be protected. As I look back on the journey I’m going to be forever proud that I served as a police officer.
Brian L. Cox is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.