Cop Cusser | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cop Cusser 

Former alderman Wallace Davis was holding a broom. The robber was holding a knife. Davis swore at a police officer. Guess which guy got arrested?

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Wallace Davis was in his west-side restaurant on June 27 when he heard a woman calling for help. He says he ran outside and the woman told him a man with a butcher's knife had been trying to hold her up. Davis says he never imagined that when the police arrived he'd be the one they pummeled, arrested, and charged with battery.

Davis moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 1970, when he was 18. He found an apartment on the west side, where his mother owned a small rib restaurant, and got a job. "I worked in an auto-body plant and at the restaurant," he says. In 1976 he tried to stop two gun-wielding robbers who were holding up his mother at her restaurant and got shot in the back by a Chicago police officer, who claimed he thought Davis was one of the burglars. Davis wound up on life support--a large photo of him in the hospital hangs on his restaurant's wall. After he recovered he sued the police department and eventually won a $510,000 settlement--"$300,000 for my hospital bills," he says, "$210,000 for me."

In 1983 he used the money to make an underdog run for alderman of the 27th Ward. Back then the west-side 27th was a predominantly black ward ruled by sewer commissioner Ed Quigley, who had an army of precinct captains at his command. Davis was up against Quigley's secretary, Mattie Coleman. "I got ahold of this picture of Coleman on her knees kissing Quigley's feet," he says. "My slogan was 'Help me get this black woman off of her knees, kissing this white man's feet.'"

Davis won, but within a few years he'd been indicted in two cases. In 1986 he was charged by the Cook County state's attorney, Richard M. Daley, with pistol-whipping one of his secretaries. Davis swears he didn't do it, and a jury acquitted him. He still hasn't forgiven Daley.

In 1987 he got ensnared in Operation Incubator, a federal sting in which FBI mole Michael Raymond bribed several aldermen to help an out-of-town contractor win a parking-ticket-collection contract. Davis admits he took money from Raymond, but he says it was only a campaign contribution and he reported it on his taxes. "I was stupid to even be near Michael Raymond," he says. "But, man, let me tell you, Michael Raymond was the smoothest cat I've ever seen--and I came up on the west side, where I've seen some smooth, smooth talkers. How smooth was Raymond? Let me tell you, he took us to this high-class restaurant--I forget the name--and I picked up the tab!"

Davis served four years in federal prison. After he emerged in 1992 he decided to open a soul food restaurant in a vacant building on Madison just west of California. His friends thought he was nuts. Clifford Kelley, a WVON talk-show host and former alderman who was also convicted in Operation Incubator, says, "Wallace said to me, 'Cliff, you got to see this property.' I said, 'You're not going to purchase this.' I stepped on the floor and almost fell to the basement, the wood was so rotted. I thought my good friend had lost his mind during his confinement."

Davis bought the property anyway, fixed it up, and turned it into Wallace's Catfish Corner, one of the west side's busiest soul food restaurants. It's usually packed with a mix of working-class locals, police officers, judges, and politicians. "You'd be surprised who stops by here--why, Eddie Vrdolyak was just in here not long ago," Davis says, referring to Mayor Harold Washington's archenemy in the City Council. "Eddie walked around from table to table, telling our mostly African-American clientele, 'I'm Ed Vrdolyak. Don't blame me--Harold did it.'"

Davis is one of the west side's most successful entrepreneurs--he also owns the lots on all three corners across from his restaurant, and on Fridays he holds blues concerts in his parking lot that draw hundreds of people. He's done so well on the straight path he didn't think he'd ever get in trouble with the law again. "I don't have any problem with the police--most of them do their jobs real good," he says. "Hell, some of my best and most loyal customers are cops."

Then came that cry for help, at about 11:45 PM on June 27. "This woman told me a man was trying to rob her, and she pointed out the man," he says. "He was standing outside my restaurant on Madison at the bus stop, and he was holding a butcher's knife."

Davis says he asked one employee to bring him a broom and another to call the police. For a while there was a standoff, as Davis, brandishing the broom, and his employees surrounded the robber. When a policewoman arrived he was relieved. "I thought, 'Good--some help,'" he says. "But this policewoman--who I didn't know, though she knows me--said, 'Wallace, put down the broom.' I want you to think about this for a minute. We're standing on Madison. I got a broom. The other guy's got a knife--and she tells me to put down the broom! I said, 'Bitch, are you crazy--what about the knife?' She told me--and I'm not making this up--it wasn't her concern. Wasn't her concern? The guy has a motherfucking butcher's knife!"

The policewoman called for backup, and Davis says that within minutes about 20 squad cars showed up. "There must have been 30 cops--all of them white--and they started pounding me," he says. "The only black was the policewoman, and the only role she played was Aunt Jemima. I mean, these white cops beat the holy hell out of me. They twisted my arm behind my back and dislocated my shoulder. I was cuffed, and they slammed my head against the roof of their car, and they tossed me in a squad car. They were driving real fast and then stopping fast so I'd fall forward and bang my head. And while they're beating me up, the robber--he just walks away."

According to Davis, the police took him to the lockup at Harrison and Kedzie. "They cuffed me to a wall. Then they locked me up," he says. "They kept me locked up overnight. The next day, before they let me out, they took me to the station at Grand and Central and had me appear in a lineup with a bunch of gangbangers. I'm thinking, 'Damn, these guys are really dragging this out.'"

The police give a different account of what happened. "According to our police report, he was chasing a citizen with a broom, and the officer ordered him to put the broom down," says David Bayless, a police department spokesman. "He replied, 'Fuck you--I got this.' He pushed the officer. He was taken into custody and charged with battery." Bayless says there's nothing in the report about a man holding a butcher's knife.

On August 10 Davis showed up in court for a hearing, but the state's attorney dropped the charges, because the policewoman, whose name the police won't disclose, didn't appear.

But Davis isn't dropping the issue. He's filed a complaint with the department's Office of Professional Standards, and he says he plans to file a suit against the police department. "They say I pushed that policewoman--I never touched her," he says. "I have many witnesses who will testify to what happened. I have witnesses who saw the man holding the knife. I don't want to give out her name right now, but the woman who was robbed was in the courtroom ready to testify that I told the policewoman about the attempted robbery but the policewoman didn't pay attention. I also have footage of what happened taken by the security cameras on the restaurant, and I have pictures of the wounds I suffered, a report from the hospital regarding my dislocated shoulder. I can't believe that 30 years after getting shot I'm going through this. They ain't getting away with this." As he tells this story his employees stand around him nodding their heads.

Several of the restaurant's patrons speculate that the police were trying to put a successful black man in his place, though they concede that he might have saved himself a lot of trouble if he hadn't cursed at the officer.

"Did I swear?" says Davis. "Hell yes, I swore--wouldn't you?" But he doesn't think what followed was fair. "He had the knife, and I had the broom. He walked away, and I got hauled off to jail and clobbered. Now you tell me--is that crazy?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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