Chasing Mayhem With Peter Nickeas, the Chicago Tribune’s Overnight Crime Reporter

Photo: Anthony Souffle

Cold is the best crime deterrent,” says Peter Nickeas, the overnight reporter covering violence and mayhem for the Chicago Tribune. It’s not even mid-September in Chicago, at 10 p.m. on Saturday, the beginning of an overnight shift, and Nickeas is insulated in long underwear and a pair of jackets ­doubled up over a bulletproof vest. He’s driving to Bridgeport, the old sod of the two Mayor Daleys, to a Dunkin’ Donuts where he likes to lie in wait. It’s centrally located, and there’s coffee and usually a place to pee (the bathroom was out of order that night). As he listens to the bleats of dispatchers on three different scanners, he tells me about one of the 500 crime scenes he’s visited in his three years on the job — a span of time in which the city has suffered some 1,200 homicides and 6,000 shootings. A man asked if he might be permitted to pray over the body of his murdered son. A cop consented. The father would have to wait, though, until after the detectives and the crime-lab technicians arrived and examined the scene. “There were 20 other people shot that night. But the dad waited, and so I did, too. A father saying good-bye to his dead son. It was a tiny little city tale, and I watched it fucking happen.”

Nickeas is interrupted by a crackle from a scanner announcing a 10-1 — an officer in distress. A driver on the West Side rammed a police car, hitting a cop; the officer’s partners shot the driver multiple times. The two wounded men are being shuttled separately to area hospitals. Nickeas spins the car in the direction of the hospital. “They’re taking Chicago Avenue all the way in,” he barks on the phone to a staff photographer. He calls his desk back at the Tribune: “You going to stay for this?” He taps a rhythmic tattoo on his leg while he swerves around other drivers.

Nickeas is a barrel-chested 28, with sandy hair buzzed into a military crew cut. He’s someone who plans for contingencies — bottled water in the trunk, his photographer in a second car in case one of them gets a flat and requires an ­“extraction.” He assures me as he races to the hospital that there’s nearly a zero percent chance he’ll ever get in an accident. “I move quickly and with authority. It’s defense by way of offense.”

Even after first going to the wrong hospital, Nickeas easily beats the police officer’s ambulance to Northwestern Memorial, on the city’s posh Gold Coast. While he waits outside the emergency-room entrance, he works out a just-the-facts news story for the next day’s print edition (“Car hits cop, suspect shot”). But Nickeas has become known for a different sort of crime reporting. He regularly tweets what he sees during his shifts: gang graffiti and cats roaming near crime scenes and any number of personal reactions. At the hospital he tweets pictures of the dozens of city police who have arrived via cruiser, unmarked car, and bicycle to show their support for a downed officer.

He has also written 50 “scene of the crime” vignettes, dispatches that have mainly appeared on the paper’s website. These pieces — among the Tribune’s most popular online — are more observational: a sergeant who says of a shooting victim en route to the hospital, “He’s dead, but he don’t know it yet.” Gang members who crash their car in a rival clique’s territory and are forced to ask the police for a ride home. Nickeas’s hope is that with these short narratives he’s able to move beyond the relentless crime statistics and the caricatured “Chiraq” depictions and convey a more human truth about the toll of violence on the city.  

Nobody at the hospital knows anything more about the injured officer. So Nickeas decides to leave for the crime scene on the West Side, where he might find better narrative possibilities.

When Nickeas started at the Tribune in 2011, he reported on crime overnight like everyone else — from a desk. Beginning in 1890, city papers ran a wire service with reporters embedded at police stations. But the police cut back on access and the papers on their staffs. Nickeas made the old new again simply out of boredom. One night, he heard about a murder on the scanner — one guy stepped on another guy’s sneakers—and he ventured to the scene. “I was too afraid to talk to family members or approach ­anyone,” Nickeas says. He didn’t even know how to turn what he observed into usable copy. But on each subsequent shift he continued to set out, jotting down and posting what he saw.

Parked near the hospital is a Hummer stretch limousine. Nearby floor-to-ceiling windows frame the dining room of a restaurant, where customers check their phones and sip wine. “It trips me out how these people are going on with their lives and there’s an entire side of the city that they don’t see,” says Nickeas, who went to high school 25 minutes outside Chicago. He and his wife recently bought a house on the Northwest Side. On his days off, he follows the police scanners — “listening to the city,” as he puts it. It’s a Chicago that can seem strangled with hostility and despair. Nickeas knows he’s intruding on the worst moments in people’s lives. He tries to be respectful, to fend off his own bitter feelings. “The more I know about Chicago, the more I dislike it. But I’d rather know it more than like it more. I choose honesty over comfort.”

Nickeas drives west to the scene of the 10-1. The shot-up car sits under the Lake Street el tracks at Western Avenue, beside marbled glass, a pool of blood, and a pair of bloodied sneakers. Officers mill about behind police tape that stretches a hundred feet. Locals gather to speculate about the shooting and the fate of the suspect. A young woman in a puffy American-flag sweater beckons one of the cops. She thinks the man shot might be a relative. Would the police run the plates on the car and tell her its owner? “It’s an ongoing investigation, ma’am. If I could I would,” says the officer, before asking her to back up because the crime scene is now being expanded another 300 square feet. His voice is drowned out by the metal-in-blender rattle of a train passing overhead. Soon a man pushing a shopping cart full of found wares trundles directly across the crime scene.

Past midnight, Nickeas is finally parked outside his regular Dunkin’ Donuts, in Bridgeport. A Tribune staff photographer named Anthony Soufflé sits in the next car over. On his laptop, Nickeas files a story, tweets various observations from his shift, and responds to his readers. He cold-calls a few officers. “Did you guys have a shooting on the expressway? No? Okay, I’ll try back later.” On the scanners, dispatchers continue a dispassionate narration of the night’s dangers. An armed robbery, one of the suspects is five-eleven, in a hoodie, with a high voice. A Hispanic male with a birthmark on his face fires shots at a neighbor. Two men in a Nissan Maxima, gang affiliated, are seen wielding pistols. A customer is beat up by a 7-Eleven employee. Nickeas shouts between the two cars, asking Soufflé if he’s heard anything good. “You know how I feel about arms and legs,” the photographer says of a South Side man shot in an extremity. They can’t chase every crime.

Hours before daybreak, Nickeas rushes to another 10-1. Nothing comes of it. He heads over to a shooting on the South Side as well, but the police have corralled the witness. At 4 a.m. he rides into Little Village, a largely Hispanic neighborhood on the Southwest Side. Little Village has its own gang problem, but it’s relatively stable in comparison to the other battle-torn parts of the city. The stores on 26th Street do a lively business, and by dawn people are waiting at bus stops and bustling off to work. Lately Nickeas has been going there at the end of his shift to buy tamales from a Mexican woman who sells them, a dozen for $10. He likes to park there, facing east toward the lake, eating the tamales one after another. “It’s like the sun comes out over Lake Michigan and wipes away all the fucking grime,” he says. “I’m not religious, but to me it’s proof of something awesome going on elsewhere in life.”           

*This article appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Chasing Mayhem With a Tribune Crime Reporter