Upper Darby's top cop: The 'real deal' or a 'jackass'?

Chitwood gets a workout in last week at Springfield's Healthplex Sports Club - his second gym stop of the morning.
Chitwood gets a workout in last week at Springfield's Healthplex Sports Club - his second gym stop of the morning. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 08, 2011

'AHHH f---! Ahhh f--- me!"

That's a quote from Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood during a 2008 news conference.

It's also what I said to myself as I tried to keep up with the 67-year-old crazy bastard at a 6 a.m. spin class last week.

By the time the class started, Chitwood had already been full throttle for an hour at the Healthplex Sports Club in Springfield. Before that, he was at another gym for a half-hour.

He'd been up since 3:30 a.m.

"This is normal," he said.

He is not.

Chitwood, a veteran Philly lawman who heads the Upper Darby Police Department, is known for his trucker's mouth and penchant for news conferences.

"He'll hold a press conference on jaywalking," one source said.

He held one to demonstrate the effect of a stun gun - on himself - which elicited that explicit aforementioned quote.

He openly refers to suspects as "scums," "bums" or, if he's really pissed, "scum bums."

To some, like Radnor Police Superintendent William Colarulo, a former chief inspector in Philadelphia, Chitwood "epitomizes police professionalism."

"He is absolutely the real deal, and he is ageless," Colarulo said. "He's the kind of a guy, like a famous baseball player, people will compare others to him. That will be his legacy."

But not everyone is down with that Chit.

People, especially cops, give him nicknames like "Media Mike," "Yosemite Sam," "Dirty Harry," "Jackass" and the "TMZ Police."

And in the six years since Chitwood became superintendent of the Upper Darby police, the crazy circus seems to have rolled into town. From the pizzeria owner who allegedly planted mice in his competitors' ceilings to the man who drowned his lover's Pomeranian and placed it in a cooking pan with spices, the crime stories Chitwood publicizes make reporters salivate.

Yet Chitwood's numerous ardent supporters haven't been deterred, even though his language and relish for the spotlight have drawn some negative publicity to the 7.9-square-mile township of 83,000, where reported incidents of violent crime have increased 58 percent under his tenure.

Center stage

Over his 47-year career, Chitwood has always found himself in the media spotlight, whether he's talking down hostage-takers or finding the body of Holly Maddux in killer Ira Einhorn's closet.

In 19 years as a Philly cop, he spent time in narcotics, homicide and hostage negotiation, earning more than 70 commendations.

From there, he became police chief of Middletown, Bucks County, for four years, then chief in Portland, Maine, where a group of supporters tried unsuccessfully to get him to run for governor. He came to Upper Darby in August 2005.

Chitwood's son Michael Chitwood Jr., police chief in Daytona Beach, Fla., said that growing up, the family was well-aware of his father's high profile.

"He was so decorated and got so much media attention that we didn't have a Christmas tree at home," he said. "We put my father up at Christmas time."

Chitwood Jr., who's adopted his father's shoot-from-the-hip style, said those who claim his dad is just out for fame are naive.

"I think that's the easy shot to take at him, because he's visible and doing this," Chitwood Jr. said. "But look behind the veil at the 47-year body of work and the ways he cares for the community.

"Most people who criticize him are either not in law enforcement or they can't out-hustle him and they can't out-police him."

His critics also usually won't talk about him on the record.

An Upper Darby real-estate agent who asked not to be identified said he doesn't see the benefit of airing the township's "dirty laundry." He's had clients reference Chitwood and crime when buying or selling homes.

"I do certainly believe that crime here is overstated to the point that it's become detrimental to the property values in the area, without a doubt," he said. "He has definitely made my job much more difficult in Upper Darby Township."

Chitwood's also drawn fire for his affinity for colorful descriptors of suspects who have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Michael Malloy, a Delaware County defense attorney, said he's not sure what purpose it serves, other than an "I'm-the- biggest-sheriff-in-town mentality."

"There's suspects and there's citizens, too," he said. "In a perfect world, if they were suspects and always guilty, then fire away, but it doesn't work that way."

Ridley Park Police Chief Thomas Byrne echoed what Chitwood said is the most common feedback he hears from people.

"He probably says a lot of things I think," Byrne said, "but I reserve judgment until later."

Chitwood has weathered his share of negative attention.

In the 1970s, an Inquirer series on police brutality included accusations that Chitwood had beaten confessions out of suspects. He was never charged, but he also never forgot the sting.

This year, Chitwood caught heat again when $8,000 went missing from the Upper Darby Police Department's evidence locker. Chitwood theorized - and still does - that the money was set on fire in an evidence burn.

Delaware County district attorney spokesman Michael Mattson said his office's investigation into the missing money remains open, because there is not "enough credible evidence to substantiate prosecution."

Chitwood has since instituted a new electronic tracking system for each piece of evidence that enters the station.

Voicing support

Several township officials overwhelmingly voiced support for Chitwood.

Upper Darby Mayor Thomas Micozzie said the quality of Chitwood's work "far exceeds" any type of negativity that may be associated with him. He noted Chitwood's increased police patrols, a mentoring program for fifth-graders and two community policing stations.

"He's a firm believer that the community needs to know what's going on, and he delivers that position," Micozzie said. "What I think is the remarkable thing about him, all the years he's been doing it, he's still as energized walking to his police car as he was when he was a rookie."

Councilman John B. Rankin Jr. agreed.

"He does like the TV or the news outlets; he always seems to have something to say, but we can put that to one side," Rankin said. "I think he does an outstanding job allowing his officers that run the department to do their jobs."

Chitwood said he doesn't speak the way he does for publicity.

"It's not about me," he said. "Crime is a community problem, and the community deserves to know what's going on."

Meanwhile, the 58 percent increase in reported incidents of violent crime is in stark contrast to a 14 percent decrease in that time in Philly, according to FBI data.

Chitwood, in part, pointed to his neighbor.

He said that of the 206 people arrested for robberies from 2010 to now, 79 were from Philly.

"There's a perception that there's more influence and money in the suburbs, so the bad guys are coming out here," he said. "We report it and tell it like it is. Crime is on the rise, and we do what we can to fight it."

Thomas Judge Jr., Upper Darby's chief administrative officer, attributes the spike partly to a push by police and officials to get residents to report domestic-abuse crimes. In 2008, a domestic-abuse coordinator was hired, with Chitwood's help, Judge said.

"We have a lot of immigrants in Upper Darby, and many don't report abuse because they didn't in their old society," he said. "We identified that and are trying to make those victims more comfortable."

Driven by emotion

Inside the police station on West Chester Pike, Chitwood picks up trash in the hallway as he shows me around, openly praising his officers and proudly pointing out the Christmas tree and manger he had put in the lobby.

"I'm waiting to get sued," he says with a smile. "I want them to sue me."

Later, he's sitting at his computer, clearing out his email inbox. He turns, his steel-blue eyes fall and the tiny purple veins on his nose and ears darken slightly.

"I read these reports every day, and when they're about some random, innocent victim whose life is changed forever, it infuriates me," he says. "The first thing I say is, 'I wish they had a gun and shot them.' It just makes no sense, and I've never been able to get over that.

"People are cruel to one another, and the unfortunate thing is that things haven't changed that much," he says. "It makes no sense."

No matter how much he still loves the job - and he really does - the endless human suffering he sees every day is crushing. For a cop, there's no finish line. Every day, there's just more.

Chitwood, whose brash demeanor and barbed tongue belie the fact that his favorite movies are the "Harry Potter" series, said he's endured because he embraces what most officers think they need to shun - emotion. The turning point, for him, came when he was the lead homicide investigator on the 1981 murder of 12-year-old Nicolette Caserta, in Philadelphia. He went to the scene, where the dead little girl was dressed in a Catholic school uniform and had an electrical cord around her neck.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, it looks like my daughter!' " he said. "I got the wind taken out of me, and I had been doing this for a while."

The child's aunt's boyfriend was arrested for the murder, and Chitwood didn't like the victim's family.

"As far as I was concerned, they were pieces of s---, and the kid wouldn't have been dead if they were around," he said.

But at the trial, the family gave him a kitten in a cardboard box that they named "Mikey or Chitty or some s---."

"Number one, I'm allergic to cats," he said. "But two, they had nothing. This is all they had to give, and I've got to tell you I was totally blown away."

When it came time for him to testify at trial, for the first time in his career, Chitwood choked up.

That was the day "I realized I was a human being," he said. Before that, "you were a robot."

"I was a cop's cop," he said. "You know, 'Cops were this and everybody else, they didn't understand.' . . . That's why a lot of cops drink; that's why a lot of cops become suicidal, because they don't learn and grow from that desensitized nature.

"You as a person can become negative because you see people at their worst. You see every negative facet."

In the end, the same passion inside Chitwood that makes him scream "scumbag" at news conferences may be the very same thing that allows him to give a damn about the victims.

"I like his style," Colarulo, the Radnor chief, said. "He gives a s--- and it shows."

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