A Chicago ‘nightcrawler’ knows the city’s violence all too well

Editor’s Note: On Monday’s PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Chris Bury reports on the uptick of deadly violence in Chicago. In the report, he introduces us to Paul “Pauley” Lapointe, a news photographer who has witnessed much of this violence, and who serves as a “guide” to the NewsHour’s crew as they drive Chicago’s streets on a recent Friday night.

Our introduction to Paul “Pauley” Lapointe resembled a scene out of a classic film noir or perhaps, “The Dark Knight,” the Batman movie in which Chicago serves as a shadowy Gotham. We met just after 10 p.m. in a dimly lit warehouse parking lot just south of Chicago’s downtown. The veteran freelance photographer told us he starts his work soon after the local TV newscasts sign off.

Lapointe’s office is a 2004 black Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor brimming with so many antennas that it could easily be mistaken for an unmarked squad car. Inside, the Crown Vic is equipped with more than a dozen scanners that monitor Chicago’s police and fire departments, and other emergency radio frequencies. Our PBS NewsHour crew outfited the car with three small GoPro cameras, two on the dashboard and one on the roof, to capture Lapointe’s working night with minimum interference from us.

Lapointe, 43, is wearing a bullet-resistant vest, as he does every night. “People call it ‘Chi-raq’ for a reason,” he tells me. “There are bullets flying every night in Chicago and I have a family.”

I climb in the front seat while producer Dan Morris, photographer Gary Levens and audio engineer Joe Leo follow in a van.

For the first 30 minutes, we cruise neighborhoods adjoining the Dan Ryan expressway on Chicago’s south side. So far, the night is quiet. “This is the best part of it,” Lapointe says. “We’re sitting here waiting. What’s it going to be tonight? Is it a big fiery wreck? Is it a shooting?”

At 11:15 p.m., the police scanners come alive with reports of the first shooting of the night. I can barely understand what the radio voices are saying, but Lapointe knows their coded language well: “Just the whole inflection. You get to know all the dispatchers voices. Most of them I’ll never meet, but they’re in my life every night.”

Lapointe steps on the gas, speeding to the scene so quickly that my crew, following in the van, has no chance to keep up. Lapointe jumps out of the car with his Canon XA 20 to take video of the crime scene. By now, the victim — a 25 year-old man — is already in the ambulance. He will die a few hours later; one of three men shot to death in Chicago that Friday night.

We spend only minutes at this shooting scene because another, potentially bigger story is breaking a few blocks away. Two men who’ve been shot in the doorway of a restaurant stumble across the street and a vacant lot before collapsing. Lapointe arrives in time to get close-ups of police marking bullet casings on the street. He tells us local stations are more likely to buy this footage, so he quickly uploads it to his web site, capturednews.com. Later, he’ll cover a triple shooting after a party on the city’s west side.

After 20 years of covering Chicago’s violence, Lapointe is actually optimistic that things are improving. He mentions that the Englewood neighborhood, among the city’s deadliest, witnessed no killings over the July 4 weekend, when 54 people were shot and 10 killed elsewhere in Chicago.

Lapointe said mothers from the neighborhood patrolled the streets that weekend, and he credits their efforts to keeping the peace in Englewood, however briefly.

“I believe in my heart it was (them),” Lapointe says. “It was real people doing a real thing for their community and real mothers coming out there and saying, ‘you’re not going to take over our streets.’”