The last policewoman

As of Friday, Chicago has no more policewomen. The last one, Pat Hays, retired her star this week to make more time for shooting pool.

Here in the year 2001, police officers who just happen to be women are as routine a part of the Chicago police force as the unisex blue trousers. But back in Hays' early days, women were not only oddities on the force, they carried a special badge and did special duties under a title that now seems as passe as their beehive hair: policewoman.

Chicago's last officially designated policewoman still vividly recalls the day in 1965--nine years before women were offered the chance to work in the regular patrol, freed of the gender-specific label--when she phoned a friend and asked, "Want to go shopping Saturday?"

"I can't," said the friend. "I'm taking the policewoman's test."

Policewoman? Who even knew women did such a job? And what woman would want to?

"Sounds like garbageman," thought Hays, who a few years earlier, at 17, had married just to get out of the house.

But the job sounded better than her work at a trucking firm, so she told her friend, "I'll come too," and before she knew it she was decked out in the most adorable dark-blue skirt, matching cropped jacket and pillbox hat, strolling the city sidewalks in pumps with a gun packed in her purse.

"Citizens didn't know what to make of us when they saw us on the street," Hays says, all these years later, leaning on a pool cue at Chris's Billiards on North Milwaukee Avenue. At 60, she's cigarette skinny and exceptionally fond of both the butterfly tattoo on one heel and the rhinestone butterfly barrette in her light brown hair. She can clear balls from a pool table as swiftly as a short-order waitress clears plates from a counter.

"Citizens mostly asked us, `Where's the nearest women's room?'" she says. "If they saw us running after a prisoner, they thought we were nurses. And I can't tell you how many pairs of pantyhose I went through."

There had been a few policewomen and a job called "police matron" before Hays, but in 1966 she was part of the first female class to train at the Chicago Police Department Training Academy. The "girls" as she calls them included nurses, teachers, even a nun--women who managed to imagine their lives beyond the boundaries of the kitchen.

Hays doesn't know exactly why she was one of those oddball dreamers. Maybe it was simply because, growing up in South Bend, Ind., and then on Chicago's South Side, she too often heard her drunken father rage at her mother, "You're a non-entity!" At an early age, she vowed, "I will be an entity."

Like all of her fellow policewomen, Hays was assigned initially to the youth division. It was the family beat. She searched for runaways. Arrested men who beat their wives and kids. Sometimes arrested negligent mothers, though over the years she came to believe that most of them needed counseling, not jail. She worked a lot in poor neighborhoods, in projects. She got to know black people for the first time in her life.

And sometimes she'd go home as exhausted by emotion as a ditch-digger is from shoveling.

"Once there was this little kid, this Appalachian white kid," she recalls. "He'd been dipped in scalding water. Poor little thing, he was just cooked. His little fingers were like boiled sausages."

The boy died. Hays was convinced the killer was the girlfriend of the boy's father--"one of those teeny bow-legged gap-toothed men of the South that women fight over"--but the woman ultimately went free. It was the kind of experience Hays often had on the job, an education wrapped in a defeat.

"I got real about how much you can actually affect people," she says.

As a policewoman, she was often summoned to strip-search female prisoners--not her favorite job.

"I wasn't always the best searcher," Hays recalls, lighting a cigarette under a sallow lamp in the dark pool hall. She grimaces. Prostitutes could hide the strangest things in the most private places. Cigarettes, matches, money, knives.

By the 1970s, the sexual revolution that changed the world had changed the Chicago Police Department too. At last women could be police officers, just like the guys. Walk a beat, just like the guys. Work homicide, just like the guys. The role and title "policewoman" were phased out.

But what liberated many women oppressed a few, including Hays, who figured that wasn't the job for which she'd enlisted.

"The more they insisted I start being a patrolman, the more I resisted. I can't do a patrolman's job," says Hays, barely 5-foot-3. "There are women who can do that job. It isn't a gender thing. But I knew I could not help someone if it was a feat of strength. Also, I'm a chicken. I didn't want to go to a bar fight. I didn't want to get punched out."

Besides, she hated arresting people, which was a little like being a bartender loath to mixing drinks.

So time passed. Other policewomen graduated to the title of police officer. Or retired. But Hays clung to her policewoman's badge. She ventured into the worlds of detective work and vice. She says she was pretty good at getting a confession and decent at surveillance, but lacked in other areas.

When she posed as a CTA rider, allowing cash to dangle from her purse like worms on a hook, no pickpocket ever took the bait. Out on a drug bust, all she could think was, "I want to go home to my two children." When she dressed up as a hooker trying to lure clients, she could never make eye contact. And she couldn't talk the talk.

"I was supposed to dress so pimps would try to recruit me," she says. "I'm supposed to give a signal by combing my hair. So a pimp came up to me and said something I didn't understand. In street language. I said, `I beg your pardon?' That blew it."

For the past 10 years, Hays has mostly answered phones. She's known as "the mom of 311" in the Near West Side building where non-emergency police calls land. She counsels younger women and is famous for being able to talk the most irate 311 caller down from a tantrum.

"Nothing too much rattles her," says Officer Sharon Owens, who has worked with Hays off and on for 17 years. "And nobody messes with her. She comes and goes as she pleases. She's been around longer than the supervisors, so they kind of let her have carte blanche."

There are those who scoff that Hays chose light duty over more dangerous police work, but she wins admiration from many for surviving a bureaucracy and more than a generation of social change. She survived it while surviving two divorces, raising a couple of kids, graduating from college at 53. She survived it while her brother went to jail for dealing drugs. And she survived with good humor.

"She's a solid gold member of the KMA club," said one admiring colleague as Hays' co-workers gathered one night this week to cut her retirement cake. KMA, she explains, stands for "Kiss My ..."

In certain ways, Hays says, it was easier to be a policewoman way back then than it is to be a female police officer now. Sure, the guys liked to joke that all the policewomen liked to do was shop. Some got their kicks by watching the policewomen pull the choke in the old squad cars, a feat that often required the skirted woman to hike her leg on the dashboard. On the other hand, she says, back then the men understood more clearly that the women were there to complement them, not to compete.

As for her policewoman star, the last one on the force, the one she should have turned in on the occasion of her retirement, she reported it "lost" a few days ago to the Chicago Police Department.

Now she's going to spend her time teaching pool. Her primary tip is this: "Stay down, follow through."

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