Park Ridge’s Officer of Year faces down ‘policeman’s worst nightmare’
Officer Steve Tracy
NAME: Steve Tracy
BEST KNOWN AS: Officer of the Year
Updated: July 1, 2012 11:47AM
The objects left behind on the kitchen table made Park Ridge Police Officer Steve Tracy’s heart sink.
A man’s wallet and house keys. His eyeglasses and — most troubling of all — his wedding ring.
“I thought, ‘That’s really not a good sign,’ ” Tracy recalled.
Tracy was thinking of the distraught woman beside him, a worried wife who sensed even before opening the door of her home that something was terribly wrong.
That her long-despondent husband had taken his life.
Unwilling to enter the house alone she’d called Park Ridge Police. Tracy responded to the call.
“She knew something was up. Something had tipped her off to that,” Tracy, a 24-year veteran of the Police Department, said of the August 2011 call, for which his response earned him the Enforcement Officer of the Year Award from the Illinois VFW Association. “She was crying and I cried a little bit with her. She reminded me of my mom.”
After the two walked inside and discovered the husband’s personal effects laid out in the kitchen — and the man nowhere to be found — Tracy knew the call had turned from a well-being check into a missing-person case.
And the case was about to change again.
A second call had come into police, this one involving a man seen standing at the corner of Dee and Higgins roads, covered in blood.
“It was three blocks away from where this guy was missing from,” Tracy said. “I thought, ‘That has to be my guy.’ ”
The man, in his 60s, was standing at the edge of the forest preserve, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. His clothing was soaked in blood, but there was something even more disconcerting about his appearance: the revolver dangling from the handcuffs around his right wrist.
“I knew his name, so from my squad car I called out his name to him,” Tracy said. “He wasn’t really looking at me, he was obviously in shock. When he did look at me I said, ‘You’re not going to try to hurt me, are you?’ He took awhile, but then he finally shook his head.”
Tracy approached the man slowly, carefully, while a second police officer stood nearby, gun at her side, ready for what neither officer wanted to occur. Myriad thoughts converged in Tracy’s mind within seconds as he considered the best way to handle the potentially deadly situation. The man appeared to have shot himself under the chin.
Were there any more bullets left in his gun? Would he use it on the police officers? Did he want the officers to shoot him in a “suicide-by-cop” scenario?
“It was one of those things — a policeman’s worst nightmare — because you can’t say ‘Put the gun down’ because he’s got it handcuffed to his wrist,” Tracy said.
The officer was concerned about the man’s reaction, should he come out of shock suddenly. Though police officers are trained to think first of their own safety when confronted with a person who is armed and potentially dangerous, Tracy knew he didn’t want to fire on the man and hoped he wouldn’t raise his gun.
“Everything kind of comes at you,” Tracy said of the experience. “The big thing was knowing I didn’t want to bring him out of the shock and know that to finish the job all he needs to do is point that gun at me.”
Now standing in front of the man, Tracy told him he was about to secure his weapon.
“I opened the cylinder and all six chambers were empty,” he said. “After a split second I said, ‘You don’t have another gun, do you?’ He shook his head no.”
As the stunned occupants of cars stopped in traffic at the busy intersection watched, Tracy unlocked the man’s handcuffs with his own handcuff key and removed the Colt .357 Magnum that was attached, carrying it away. Paramedics were soon on the scene to treat the gunshot-wound victim, who had clearly sustained serious injuries to the lower part of his face.
Tracy said using the wrong type of bullet in the gun, combined with the way it was aimed when fired, probably saved the man’s life.
“He definitely had a plan,” Tracy said, speculating that the man’s intention was to commit suicide in the forest preserve and, not wanting someone to come across his gun and steal it once he was dead, had the forethought to handcuff the weapon to himself.
Tracy, who acknowledges he has never encountered an attempted suicide quite like this one, ranks the incident within his Top 5 most-challenging calls, but says there isn’t anything he would have done differently.
“I don’t think there was anything I could have done better,” he said.
The officer has not been in contact with the man or his family since the incident, as Tracy admits he is not quite sure how the man feels about him saving his life. Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski said the victim’s injuries were severe and he spent much time in the hospital.
Tracy was recognized with an Officer of the Year award from the Park Ridge VFW Post for his actions in safely disarming the man. The VFW then submitted his name for the statewide award, for which he was selected by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It’s a really nice thing for all of us, one time in our career, to go through,” Tracy of the recognition.
“He really put his own life in harm’s way to resolve that situation,” Kaminski added. “He’s a great officer. I think what he did was very commendable and I’m so glad he will receive that recognition for what he did.”