Pictures by Liz Greiwe
It’s late at night in a violence-ridden area on Chicago’s West Side. Run-down buildings tagged with graffiti line the eerily empty streets. It feels unsafe.
Security cameras are present in train cars on the CTA Green Line, because the line runs through some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Sometimes, though, these security cameras are not enough.
That’s where the Chicago Police Department comes in.
Chicago police officers like Judy Obrzut, 51, station themselves on Green Line platforms to keep an eye out for crime, and often times, they find it.
One night in particular, Obrzut found herself in a terrifying situation when patrolling a West Side platform.
“I was with my partner and we see this guy get off the train,” Obrzut says. “He’s this young white guy in a trenchcoat, and he’s got a rifle sticking out of his backpack. So we stopped him, and he had 500 rounds of ammunition on him. Where was he going with all of that ammo? I thought he was like an urban terrorist.”
Even more terrifying for Obrzut was the fact that the offender could disguise his gun.
“You could break down the gun and put the barrel into the stock,” Obrzut says. “You never would have known it was a gun.”
Obrzut has been a police officer for more than two decades, and scenarios like this are all too familiar. She often works on the Chicago Police Department’s Violence Reduction Initiative, an overtime program. Officers patrol a specific zone in the city on their day off, year-round, creating a police presence to help reduce crime.
Aside from the Green Line, Obrzut patrols Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, where she is on foot and mostly outdoors. During the winter months, she bears the bitter cold like a champion because as a single mom to a college student, Obrzut can really use the extra cash.
“It pays very well,” Obrzut says.
Well enough to motivate someone to work in dangerous conditions.
When crime rates increase, police departments need to have more manpower on the streets. The Magnificent Mile is a hub for shopping, as it is home to dozens of retailers. All the glamor of the Magnificent Mile comes with more opportunity for theft, robbery and violence, so there needs to be an even stronger police presence here.
Obrzut says during the summer, police presence is especially important on the Mag Mile because of “flash mobs” (groups of people—usually teens and young adults—who swarm into stores in large numbers and shoplift) in recent years. Some “flash mobs” have even beaten shoppers.
The Chicago Police Department is currently running low on money, so they cannot afford to hire new officers. Instead, the department has started the Violence Reduction Initiative for Chicago police officers.
According to Obrzut, each officer working the Violence Reduction Initiative receives a zone in an area with heavy crime, such as the Mag Mile or rough areas on the South and West Sides. They patrol a 2-block-by-2-block zone. If anything happens in the designated area while an officer is on duty, that officer is held accountable.
Seniority determines which officers are offered the overtime initiative. Since Obrzut has been an officer for 22 years, she receives a lot of opportunities for overtime pay.
Obrzut is also a security guard at Macy’s on State Street and at an AT&T store in suburban Norridge. She says she took these part-time jobs because they pay well and they are easy to get for police officers. Obrzut says stores that have been the targets of robberies or are in high-theft areas almost always have security personnel working in the stores.
Shoplifting is a main concern for Macy’s, according to Obrzut. She works in the loss prevention department, monitoring customers and watching for suspicious activity. While she does watch out for potential shoplifters, she says that some of the most frequent offenders are not shoplifters, but solicitors.
“There is a city ordinance against aggressively soliciting money in Chicago, so we have to watch out for them,” Obrzut says. “We had a lady come in all the time. We called her Little Red Riding Hood because she always wore a cute little red cape… and then one day, she pulled a hammer on a security guard.”
Luckily, that guard is OK, but Obrzut’s often life-threatening job has caused her to develop a tough-as-nails mentality. Obrzut’s daughter, 19-year-old Tara Bagnola, says this mentality carries over into Obrzut’s parenting.
“My mom has always been a lot more strict with me than a lot of other parents are with their kids,” Bagnola says. “In high school, I always had a really strict curfew, I wasn’t allowed to ride the CTA until I was 16 and I couldn’t drive a lot of places if I had to go through a rough area to get there.”
Obrzut agrees that her daughter is not exaggerating.
“One time, she was dating a boy who lived in Beverly on the far South Side, and she wanted to drive there,” Obrzut says. “I called her to see where she was, and she says she had gotten lost. I told her, ‘Get your ass back home, and this is never happening again.’”
Obrzut also embraces a less traditional parenting style, evident in her unique form of punishment for her daughter.
“I told Tara, if I even sense that she’s doing something wrong like drinking underage, I’m not going to take her phone, I’m not going to take her MacBook—I’m going to shave her head,” Obrzut says.
When Obrzut was Bagnola’s age, she was working—a lot. Obrzut’s first job was with Andy Frain Services, a company that provided ushers to theatres like Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre. From age 16 to 21, she was giving direction to theatregoers about where to find their seats.
Obrzut credits her ability to do her current job so well to the fact that she was an usher as a young adult. She says that many ushers wind up being law enforcement officials because they are so good at directing people.
Obrzut became a police officer in 1992. Back in the 1990s, a college education was not necessary for law enforcement officials, but Obrzut had ulterior motives for furthering her education.
“I wanted Tara to see that if I can do all this—raising her and going to school with all these jobs—she has no excuse not to go to school,” Obrzut says. “What I was doing is way harder than what she’s doing now.”
Obrzut spent 10 years getting her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Lewis University, which she completed in 2003. During this time, Obrzut gave birth to Bagnola in 1995.
“I had Tara on a Saturday, and I had to be in class Wednesday for my final” Obrzut says. “And let me tell you, that shit was hard.”
Obrzut was taking classes while pregnant, and then while raising a child. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she went on to complete a master of public safety administration from Lewis University in 2012. She did all of this while working as a police officer and taking on part-time work.
Now, Obrzut’s daughter is the one in school. Bagnola is a freshman at the University of Michigan. Tuition is costly, but Obrzut has not had to change her work ethic much in order to cover the cost of Bagnola’s education.
“I never wanted Tara to feel like she was missing out on things coming from a single-parent home, so I worked that much harder so she could have vacations and everything she wanted,” Obrzut says.
Family comes first for Obrzut. Although she works ridiculously long hours—sometimes close to 80 per week—she always finds a way to make time for those closest to her.
Obrzut says her family is extremely important to her. She also says that her family influenced her decision to become an officer. Obrzut is the second youngest of six siblings. Her older brother, Jack, was an officer, but he retired 10 years ago. Her sister, Mary Jo, is still an officer.
“The biggest misconception about police officers is that it was their life dream to become an officer,” Obrzut says. “I did it because so many of my family members were officers, it’s a good job, there are good opportunities, and it’s good pay. When I had Tara, I was off for eight months with full pay. If you get injured on the job, you’re covered.”
She also revealed a darker side to her job perks.
“If I die, I hope it’s in the line of duty, because Tara would be set for life,” Obrzut says.
Obrzut says that police officers who die in the line of duty are traditionally buried in uniform, but she does not want that for herself because being a police officer is what she does. It is not who she is.
So, who is she?
“Tara’s mom,” Obrzut says. “She’s the most important thing to me.”