Pushing to Honor a Fallen Chicago Cop

Rick Barrett, a retired DEA officer, is trying to get the Chicago police department to recognize Constable James Quinn as the first Chicago policeman killed in the line of duty. According to the Chicago Police Dept., Quinn died in drunken bar fight, and was not on duty. Melissa Block talks with Barret about why the city should recognize Quinn's passing.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Chicago City Council scrolled back in time more than 150 years today to take up this question: Who was the first Chicago policeman to die in the line of duty? The Chicago PD says that distinction rests with Officer Casper Lauer, who was stabbed to death in 1854.

But a retired federal agent says he has evidence that Constable James Quinn, beaten to death in 1853, should rightfully have that honor. That former DEA agent, Rick Barrett, testified before Chicago City Aldermen, and joins us from Chicago. And, Mr. Barrett, tell us a bit about why you got interested in all this.

Mr. RICK BARRETT (Former DEA Agent): Well, I'm a fourth generation law enforcement officer, and I was preparing for my retirement from DEA, and I was simply going through old Chicago common council records relative to the police department, and I stumbled upon an entry relative to Constable James Quinn while doing my own family history.

BLOCK: And what was it that caught your eye?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, I, I just searched under the word police, and it returned a bunch of different files. And the one that caught my eye was a report of the committee on the judiciary on a petition of Margaret Quinn for compensation for her husband's death in the line of duty as a constable.

So, I've been an investigator all my life, so I just simply thought, you know what? I'm going to crosscheck that name, Quinn, in the year 1853 against the Superintendent's Honored Star Case, which is a sacred shrine, and it enshrines all of the stars of Chicago's fallen heroes. And sure enough, Constable Quinn's name, or star, was not in the star case when I crosschecked it.

BLOCK: Now, as I understand it, there's no disagreement about the fact that James Quinn died in 1853, and where he died in a section of Chicago that was filled with saloons and brothels, called The Sands. The question was, was he on duty conducting an arrest at the time, or was he off duty drinking in a bar, got into a fight and got killed?

Mr. BARRETT: The evidence supports the former. I mean, there's just no question. The city council at the time ruled on two occasions that a member of the police, James Quinn, had been lately killed in the discharge of his duty on The Sands. And, in fact, the committee on police ordered the mayor and the city marshal to descend on the houses of ill fame on The Sands to vindicate the honor of the police.

BLOCK: Mr. Barrett, as you know, the Chicago Police Department historians with the department say you've got it wrong. That newspaper reports at the time show that James Quinn was drinking and got into a fight and lost, and unfortunately, he was killed, but he was not at all in the line of duty.

Mr. BARRETT: Well, it's interesting that when you go back through those old newspaper reports, you will never find the word drunk. The word drunk is only used by the so-called historians for the police department today who just expanded on the testimony of a convicted criminal and a member of the Know-Nothing Party, who've said that Quinn had been drinking but was “not intoxicated.”

BLOCK: I'm trying to wrap this through, though. If he were drinking, though, that would imply he was at a bar, not carrying out his duties as a police officer. No?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, all of the houses of ill fame at the time were located in what they called dens. They were unlicensed establishments that served liquor. And that's where he went to find the person that was the subject of his search warrant.

BLOCK: Why do you think it matters, Mr. Barrett, who is considered the first Chicago policeman to die in the line of duty?

Mr. BARRETT: Quite frankly, it doesn't matter. It just matters that Constable Quinn be honored in a manner consistent with all of the other officers who died in his wake.

BLOCK: Rick Barrett, it was good to talk to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. BARRETT: Thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's former DEA agent Rick Barrett, who is working to have Constable James Quinn honored as the first Chicago policeman to die in the line of duty. We called the Chicago Police Department for comment. A spokeswoman says an awards committee has already examined the case of James Quinn on three occasions and it has ruled that his death was not in the line of duty. But, she says, the department will keep an open mind and consider some of the new evidence.

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