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Our Lady of the Angels (OLA) School Fire, December 1, 1958

Patrick Butler: Pat's People

Shakespeare cop reviews life on the beat

Officer William Jaconetti was practicing community policing around Milwaukee and Damen avenues decades before anyone downtown even thought of giving it a name like CAPS.

For the past 25 of his 31 years on the job, he's been walking his Shakespeare (14th) District beat, learning to tell the bad guys from the solid citizens, and relaying complaints about abandoned cars and loose manhole covers, along with reports of drug dealers and gangbangers.

Slowly, he's seen the neighborhood once frequented by author Nelson Algren, statesman/pianist Ignace Paderewski, and movie producer Mike Todd change from dicey to trendy so trendy in fact that tour buses now prowl Wicker Park's "hot" night-life district.

Jaconetti said that, in just the past few years, at least 50 percent more commuters have started using the Damen Avenue L station.

Even his favorite lunchtime hangout, the fabled Busy Bee at 1546 N. Damen Ave. is now gone, soon some say to be replaced by yet another pricey eatery.

Not that he's particularly surprised at the neighborhood's transformation.

For, although he has at various times been burned, bitten, hit with a brick and nearly run down, Jaconetti says he realized even back in the bad old days that "99 percent of the public are good, law-abiding people" and that "70 percent of them will actively provide information if you just take the time to listen."

But the 56-year-old Jaconetti, who said he had wanted to be a police officer or firefighter since the day he and two friends helped some survivors of the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire, has always done a lot more than just listen.

During the 1969 Chicago demonstration known as Days of Rage, Jaconetti helped arrest heavyweight radical Bernardine Dorhn, who jumped bond and remained one of the country's most sought after fugitives until her surrender years later. (She's now a downtown lawyer!)

In 1973, he posed as an old man to capture a gang of thugs preying on seniors in a Wicker Park CHA housing project.

He earned the Lambert Tree Award the city's equivalent of the Medal of Honor during a 1979 shootout with three robbers in a Milwaukee Avenue jewelry store. Jaconetti not only rescued 13 hostages and recovered the loot, but walked away unharmed despite the two rounds that had passed through his jacket.

Three years after that, Jaconetti nailed the animal who molested and stabbed a nun more than 20 times during a convent robbery, an incident so heinous it made headlines all the way to Rome. The sister was left blind in one eye as a result of the vicious attack.

Also in 1982, Jaconetti and partner, Al Kohl, saved a man in a basement-apartment fire and the following year was nearly run down by a shotgun-robbery suspect.

Jaconetti, the current president of the Lambert Tree/Carter Harrison Honor Society (made up of Fire and Police department recipients of the city's highest award for valor) has also been honored by the Italian American Police Association, the Jaycees, the Illinois Police Association, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Fraternal Order of Police.

He has also received the Police Department's Award of Valor, three life-saving awards, six department commendations and 60 honorable mentions and letters of praise from private citizens.

He rates plaques in his honor at City Hall, the Police Academy and the Riordan Headquarters building at 1126 S. State St.

Officer Jaconetti, in fact, has collected just about every honor it's possible for a beat patrolman to receive.

Except promotion to sergeant.

"They told me I wasn't qualified. That I needed two years of college just to be eligible to take the test," he said.

The promotion requirements had been tightened up a few years ago, supposedly to improve the quality of future police supervisors, explained Jaconetti, who's been profiled on a "Top Cops" TV-show episode and has more medals on his chest than some generals we've met.

Jaconetti himself is philosophical about it all.

"That's just the way it is," said the father of three (all college grads, incidentally) who in another era would probably have ranked among the top "town tamers" of the Old West, he said. "I'm not complaining. Please don't let it sound that way.

"Maybe I should have taken some classes."

His legion of fans, however, wonder where he would have found the time.