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A rookie detective’s night on the beat: ‘Don’t lose your sense of humor’


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Updated: April 19, 2013 6:02AM

Giving a “head massage” — in the vernacular of some Chicago Police detectives — isn’t exactly a feel-good exercise.

It involves running latex-clad fingers through the hair of a gunshot murder victim to check for bullet wounds.

And it’s one of the less glamorous parts of the job for rookie detective Christopher Tenton.

“He’ll be doing everything now,” said veteran detective David Cavazos, who, along with his partner, Jeremy Morales, has been charged with training Tenton on the streets of the South Side.

On a recent weeknight the Sun-Times tagged along.

It wasn’t a night filled with the high drama of “The Wire,” but showed the day-to-day skills the rookie needed to develop to combat the waves of violence hitting certain areas of the city.

The three men first looked into a case of witness intimidation. But the witness, a man who’d been pistol whipped, robbed and later told to keep his mouth shut, was out of town.

Next stop, a two-story home where a newborn was found dead in a toilet. Then to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn to chat with a man who’d been paralyzed by a bullet.

It was considered a slow night, and over the crackle of a police radio as the detectives headed to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, the veterans offered words of wisdom.

“Don’t lose your sense of humor, because we carry a lot of baggage, crosses,” Cavazos told the younger detective. “People forget about the detectives assigned to these cases, we’ve got to carry that too.”

Tenton, 44, heeded the advice. After taking some flak on his haircut, he shot back, ribbing Morales about a tight-fitting sweater that made him look “like a Vienna sausage after it was cooked.”

Tenton, who became a detective on Feb. 8 in a class of 70 — the first fresh blood to join the ranks in five years — admitted he’s felt nervous in his new job.

“You don’t want to mess up” he said. “As a patrolman I wrote down the information and passed it on to detectives. Now, I have to try to find out who did it, why, how, where, take it to court and try to get that person prosecuted . . . the burden is heavier.”

But being a detective, using analytical skills and solving crimes is something every hard-working patrolman aspires to, Tenton said.

Results, both partners agreed, come from treating people with respect, listening more than you speak, and, perhaps most important, trusting your instincts.

“Do whatever your heart and your mind tell you,” Cavazos said. “Don’t worry about what somebody’s going to think or might say, because in detective work there is no dumb question.”

The best classroom, they said, is the street.

“In the academy for eight weeks you get trained to be a detective, they kind of mold you, but I think you learn to become a detective based on your experiences here on the street,” Morales said. “You watch how other detectives that have been up here longer work and how they approach certain cases and you try to emulate them, and you sort of take what they gave you and kind of develop your own style.”

A few days later, the two detectives, working without the rookie, tried to practice what they preached while speaking with the mother of a murder victim.

Cavazos, 45, and Morales, 41, interviewed Tonya Burch, whose son, Deontae Smith, 19, was shot and killed after a fight broke out at an Englewood block party in 2009. Shifting logistics in the police department recently put the case in their hands, and Burch felt ignored by previous detectives.

“I know you’re frustrated and you feel abandoned,” Cavazos said. “Now we’ve met, and we’re part of each other’s lives. . . . We’re Deontae’s voice now, we’re the only ones who can speak for him.”

At a crowded block party, someone was sure to have seen the shooter. But no one is talking.

It’s a typical silence that the rookie may have the background to help break. Tenton has a connection to the neighborhood; he grew up down the road, in West Englewood.

“It could be advantageous if something occurs and there could be someone on the street who sees it and I know that person,” Tenton said. “But as far as if you do something you shouldn’t have done, and I grew up with you, you still go to jail.”

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