Last walkabout for 'prototype' beat cop Ed Polfus

Avenue district bids fond farewell to Officer Ed Polfus

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By BILL DWYER

To paraphrase the old Sara Lee pastry commercial, "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Ed Polfus." The fact that a recent canvas of the Avenue business district didn't turn up anyone with anything bad to say about Polfus is impressive enough for most people. Consider that for the past 10 years the imposing yet affable Polfus has been the beat officer for the Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street shopping district, and Polfus' accomplishment is truly remarkable. On the eve of his retirement, he's earned a reputation as a fair and even-tempered cop who's liked even by the street people he regularly confronts and shags away.

"He's Officer Friendly," said Camille et Famille clerk Shannon Nebiolo, laughing. Yet "friendly" is an adjective most everyone uses when characterizing Polfus.

"He just takes care of everybody," said Sue Mickleson, who works at Logos Bookstore.

"I could talk about him for an hour. He's really just one of the nicest guys you could ever meet."

Alex Jacobs, who runs 3Planets.com, an internet firm on South Boulevard, breaks it down succinctly.

"Superior police skills. Superior people skills. One of a kind," he said. "This neighborhood is safer for him being here."

"His presence made me feel comfortable," said Gus Boudros of the Oak Park Market. "He was always around. Whenever anything happened, he was always here."

"I think he's been the best beat cop we've had," said Therese McGuire Hester, owner of Garland Flowers, 137 S. Oak Park Ave. "He definitely seemed to have the pulse of the block."

That pulse is calmer due to Polfus' reassuring presence. Always relaxed and self-effacing, Polfus makes light of the praise being heaped on him.

"Yeah, it's cost me a lot of money, passing out those $10 bribes to people," he cracked last week, laughing. But Ed Polfus paying for compliments is like an Eskimo paying for ice. Everyone, solicited or not, is more than willing to say any number of nice things about him, and Polfus clearly enjoys the accolades and well wishes.

He also shrugs them off to a certain extent. "It's flattering and it's humbling," he said. "I wish I could take credit for it. But the two people responsible are the ones who raised me."

Polfus' mother, Ann, and father, Edward, both now passed, are still very much with him in spirit, he said.

"Whoever I am is a great reflection on them."

What Polfus has been the past 10 years, besides a friendly face, is a formal police presence when needed and a comforting and informal police presence the rest of the time.

"It was always fun to have him walk through the door and ask, 'How's everything going?'" said Rose Joseph, co-owner of Magic Tree Bookstore. "You felt like everything was under control on the Avenue."

Hester said she has "no qualms" about calling Polfus when there's a problem instead of 911.

"You don't want a big police thing, but you want an issue resolved," she said.

That's Polfus' forteā€"handling people and situations with a deft touch that calms rather than agitates, resolves rather than escalates.

Making his presence felt

Not that most people are going to escalate around somebody his size. At 6-foot-4 and 220-230 pounds, the former tactical cop clearly has the potential to be as forceful as required. (Always a fitness buff, over the years, Polfus was a 265-pound weightlifter in his prime. Now in his early 50s, he's focused on more cardiovascular fitness, and weighs in at a healthier 220 plus.)

He readily acknowledges his size makes confrontation less likely.

"Most people can tell I'm a police officer just by looking at me, so I don't have to get aggressive," he said.

That's fine for a man who prefers to be a friendly and approachable, utilizing conversation and persuasion, not intimidation.

That, said Police Chief Rick Tanksley, stems from Polfus' confidence in himself.

"If you're confident in your abilities, you don't have to flex your muscles," said Tanksley.

Val Camilletti has been running her legendary record store on South Boulevard longer than Polfus has been a cop. Noting that police officers have not always been folks that she necessarily looked up to, Camellitti said that Oak Park cops in general, and Polfus in particular, are the best of their breed. "He just has that salt-of-the earth, West Side, blue-collar ethnic sensibility," said Camilletti. "He's a true gentleman."

Camilletti laughed as she recalled recently how Polfus likes to try and stump her on songs he recalls from his youth, mainly tunes by such Chicago '60s bands as the Ides of March, the Buckinghams and the New Colony Six.

"He's always trying to find some song he thinks it will be impossible to find," she said. "And then I find it in like a minute," she added.

As important as the police protection he provides, Camilletti and others also value the connection Polfus provides the merchants in the area.

"He's a touchstone when something happens," she said, noting that Polfus acts as a convenient and knowledgeable bridge for her to other merchants.

Not only does everyone know Polfus, he knows everyone.

"If you're walking around here for more than two days, he's going to know you," said Jacobs. "He has an encyclopedic knowledge of people, and he likes them all."

A versatile cop

The literary stereotype of the beat cop is a guy who can't do much else in law enforcement. Polfus' superiors in the Oak Park department say nothing could be further from the truth.

All three of Oak Park's top veteran cops agree that Polfus could have done any number of other policing tasks well. After starting in patrol, he became a member of Oak Park's old East Village unit, the force's first tactical unit. After additional service as a general tactical officer, Polfus joined the department's Crime Intervention Team, earning state certification in dealing with mentally challenged individuals.

"He volunteered to be the beat officer," pointed out Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose, who's supervised Polfus since taking over the Community Policing Program four years ago. "I can't think of a more loyal, more dedicated officer."

"He's exactly the type of police officer I want standing next to me when I go to confront a bad guy," said Deputy Chief Robert Scianna, who called Polfus "probably the best example of a police officer we have." Part of what makes Polfus the complete package, said Scianna, is his people skills. "He's at the very heart of Community Policing," said Scianna.

For Polfus, walking a beat was a natural part of who he is, not some career dead end.

"My grandfather did it for 36 years in the city," Polfus said. He mentions "The Blue Knight," a Joseph Wambaugh novel about an old foot-patrol guy who, due injuries had been forced to transfer to squad car patrol. What Wambaugh's character discovered, Polfus said, was that foot patrol "is the greatest job in the police department."

"You'd be surprised at how much police work you really do," said Polfus.

And he's had fun doing it all.

"This has been a ball," said Polfus. I've had a great time."

Big shoes to fill

Who will replace Polfus is an issue of concern to many on the Avenue, as well as in the department. Polfus politely declined to offer any advice publicly to whoever might take his place, saying he didn't want to place any undue pressure on them.

"The guy that takes over from me will do a fine job," he said. "People will get used to him, and he'll get used to people."

Tanksley said he hasn't yet decided on Polfus' replacement, but said he hoped to make a decision in time to have him available to walk around with the new beat officer. In any event, the chief made clear the difference between filling a position and replacing a veteran.

"We will replace the position, but we won't replace Eddie," said Tanksley.

Polfus also declined to get specific about his post-retirement plans, saying they're not finalized yet. It won't involve full time work, though, he confided.

"Just something to keep me from driving my wife [Julie] nuts," he said, grinning.

At a casual reception Monday night in Winberie's to honor him, Polfus stood amidst some of the Avenue people he's served and befriended over the past decade.

After Wednesday Journal publisher and Avenue President Dan Haley awarded him a wooden and brass plaque and wished him a "fond and respectful farewell," Chief Tanksley stepped forward to comment publicly.

"He's raised the bar," Tanksley told the crowd. "He's set the standard of what a beat patrol officer is."

"For once I'm almost speechless," Polfus quipped when it was his turn.

Once again deflecting some of the credit, Polfus quoted James Q. Wilson, who once wrote, "Police departments are a reflection of the community they serve."

"I'm a reflection of the community I served," Polfus echoed, looking out over his admirers.

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