‘Conscientious’ cop Michael Chitwood discusses 50 years of lessons learned on eve of biography

     Michael Chitwood is a former Philadelphia cop and currently serves as Upper Darby police superintendent. (Courtesy of the Upper Darby Township Police Dept.)

    Michael Chitwood is a former Philadelphia cop and currently serves as Upper Darby police superintendent. (Courtesy of the Upper Darby Township Police Dept.)

    If you follow local news, even casually, chances are you’ve probably read or heard a quirky quote from Michael Chitwood, Upper Darby’s media-friendly superintendent of police.

    During his nearly half-century long career, Chitwood, one of Philadelphia’s most notable cops, has always made it his duty to be transparent. So, when Mt. Airy resident Hal Gullan approached Chitwood about writing his biography, it didn’t take much time to convince him.

    “He represents what more public figures ought to be like — that they ought to be visible and that they ought to be conscientious,” said Gullan.

    “Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the ‘Scumbags,'” is due out this week. NewsWorks recently sat down with Chitwood to talk about the book — his first biography — and what he’s gleaned and carried with him throughout his career.

    NewsWorks: You’ve been in law enforcement for nearly 50 years, what has been the highlight of your career?

    Michael Chitwood: It’s difficult to say one particular thing. I think the highlight has been the opportunity to see the changes in law enforcement — how crimes are investigated, how physical evidence is obtained. But more important, it is the ability to be able to interact with people from all parts of the world. The challenge of people. When it’s good, when it’s bad, when it’s ugly, when it’s positive.

    I think, for me, that has been something that can always be a memorable moment I always think of different situations I’ve been involved in, whether it was working undercover drugs, whether it was working a homicide investigation, whether it was a sexual assault investigation, whether it was a hostage negotiation, interacting with people is the highlight.

    NW: What’s your greatest disappointment?

    MC: It’s tough to say disappointment. I have worked with a lot of really, really decent, good, smart, caring people and I think that they have been a success. As you go on in this job and you think back to the people that impacted you, whether it was positively or negatively and those people are no longer here, that’s tough, that’s tough. Just the last couple years, I lost a couple really close friends. That’s kind of a disappointment. Job-wise, you run into disappointments, but the things that impact you are those personal relationships that are no longer there anymore because they passed away.

    NW: What’s your most memorable moment?

    MC: Probably the one, most life-changing experience was a homicide of a little girl by the name of Nicoletta Caserta. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled, stabbed. And she was dressed in her school uniform. I was the assigned detective and I went up to the scene and I saw her inside the house in the basement and when I looked at her the first thing I thought of was my daughter, who was roughly the same age, maybe a couple years difference. And it was kind of gut wrenching for me. I thought this could be my daughter. She looked just like my daughter. And I kind of felt sick in the stomach when I saw it, having those thoughts.

    As the investigation went on and eventually we arrested the perpetrator, [I realized] I had a misperception of the family members. I was very, very negative in my feeling towards them. In reality, I learned that I was 100 percent wrong in that perception. And then subsequently, how that case impacted on me as a human being where I actually broke down and cried on the witness stand as I was reading the [murder] confession. People thought, ‘Well, that was a rouse.’

    I can remember one of the local reporters for the Philadelphia Daily News, a reporter by the name of Jill Porter, as I was walking back to give my final testimony after lunch after trying to compose myself, saying to me you know I had this ‘Dirty Harry’ reputation, tough cop, and she saw me break down on the stand and she just didn’t understand how that could happen. I kind of took a step back and reflected on her question and I said, ‘Well, I think today was the first time in my 17-year career at the time, that I realized I was a human being’

    After I got done that case, I was totally wiped out mentally and physically and I thought to myself, ‘How many more dead bodies can I see, how many more shootouts can I get involved in, how many more hostage situations, how many more crimes of violence do I want to be physically involved in day in and day out?’ And it took me a couple years, but I was able to reach out to people that I had known and was able to push myself toward a different career path and two or three years later I got my first chief job in Middletown Township. That really, really had a major impact on my life.

    NW: What did you make of people calling you ‘Dirty Harry’?

    MC: It’s kind of funny. It went from ‘Batman and Robin’ in the ’60s to ‘Dirty Harry’ in the ’70s and ’80s to kind of a Mother Teresa type thing. I guess they’re phases that you go through in instances that you’re involved in in law enforcement. You know, you’re involved in arrests, you’re involved in violence, you’re involved in tragedy, so you build a certain persona and I’ve always been highly visible and the media picked up on that so these names that I’ve been dubbed over the years have all been media-type identifications of Mike Chitwood.

    But, I think the longer I was involved in law enforcement, the more that I realized it was no longer an ‘us versus them.’ It was about ‘we.’ We have to work together. We have to solve problem. We have reach out to people in need. I kind of attribute it to a tremendous learning experience and a learning experience in myself that I cared more about people than I really thought I did at the end of the day.

    NW: You’ve always been very media-friendly. Why?

    MC: Transparency is a tremendous asset for any organization or any political structure. Police work, for years, I always saw where the police leadership, especially in Philadelphia, anytime there was anything controversial, it was always no comment. And I always looked and said, ‘Well, why would you say no comment?’ You know, if you did something wrong, you gotta take a hit. No ifs, and or buts about it. But if you hide behind ‘no comment,’ then it becomes more of a challenge for the media and those people looking at the issue and saying, ‘Well, they must have really done something wrong’ when that might not be the case. So anytime I had an opportunity to speak out, I did.

    Sometimes I was called to the carpet on that one when I was a police officer, but I made myself a promise when I was in a [leadership] position, which I’ve been in for the past 28, 29 years, to make policy and dictate policy. I always wanted to promote what we do right because we do more right than we do wrong and I think that’s why transparency is important, because I try and showcase the good in the department.

    I also learned that people want to know what’s going on. People want to know that the police are out there protecting them. So if there’s a robbery or there’s an assault or there’s some type of serial burglar in the neighborhood, people need to know that because we’re as good as the community allows us to be. We’re as good as the information we get. Hence, I’m very, very media friendly, I’m very visible and people deserve it. And you know what? The majority of the community, they love it. There’s a percentage that says, ‘Oh you’re making us look bad,’ but at the end of the day, overall, people like to know what’s going on.

    NW: You’ve held positions in a number of towns — in Philly, Bucks County, Maine. What has been the constant throughout?

    MC: The constant is always the people. Crime is crime. Police officers are police officers. I always tell people that you never have to rewrite anything that’s out there. It’s out there. And if it’s not out there in the country, then it’s out there internationally. The constant is people wanting to feel safe, people wanting them to speak decently to them.

    Every person that I’ve hired in 29 years, I bring them in and do a one-on-one and tell them to treat people the way that you want yourself and your family treated. Ninety-eight percent of the time, you’ll be successful if you do that. There’s two percent where you’re trained, you have the equipment, the tools, to deal with it, but 98 percent of the time, you don’t have to go to those resources. I’ve learned it the hard way.

    You know, 1964, different world; 2013 is a different world. People expect to be treated well. I don’t care if they did a murder, if they did a rape, if they did a robbery, if you treat them decently, they remember that. I got one guy in Montana, he calls me up. He’s on his death bed now. He tells me that I locked him up in the ’60s and me locking him up for drugs and the way I treated him, he went on to get his master’s degree; he’s a writer. For him to tell me that I made a difference and put him on the right track, I mean, that’s like a grand slam homerun. I’m sure there’s other people out there, who have no time for me or dislike me.

    NW: You’ve been described as having the gift of gab. Do you think that has been your greatest asset during your career?

    MC: I think there are two assets. Being able to surround myself with people who are highly intelligent, who are very committed to the law enforcement profession is number one. And number two, I think that I have learned, over the years, the ability to talk, to be able to listen to what people have to say, to what people’s concerns are and what people’s ideas are for a solution to a problem are. I think those are the two most important things that have helped me to succeed.

    NW: What kind of picture do you want people of have of you after they read this book?

    MC: At the end of the day I would like them to say, ‘Wow, this guy has had a great career, a lot of challenges.’ But I want people to realize that I’m a human being, ‘B,’ that I’ve always cared and ‘C,’ as passionate as I am about what I do, and as strong as I am in some areas of law enforcement, I want people to know that I also have a tremendous amount of passion and compassion and I care about my fellow human being.

    At the end of the day he may be a ‘tough cop,’ he may call people a scumbag or he may be very vocal, that he cares.

    “Tough Cop: Mike Chitwood vs. the ‘Scumbags'” (Camino Books) will be available on shelves and online Oct. 31.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.