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Thursday, June 9, 2005 02:29 pm

The natural

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Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I get this plea from a high-ranking Springfield Police Department official, begging me not to write about a certain officer.

“Please don’t write about Matt Fricke,” he says. “You’re gonna scare everybody away.”

By now, I’m accustomed to brass trying to shoo me off when I’m inquiring about a cop who may have done something wrong. I’m a little stunned to get that same recoil when I’m asking about an officer known for doing everything right.

But with Fricke on the verge of being promoted out of his post as the neighborhood police officer for beat 300 — all of the East Side north of South Grand — there’s some concern about whether any of his colleagues will even try to fill Fricke’s black high-top crosstrainers.

For one thing, there’s the geography. Fricke’s turf encompasses some of the most volatile real estate in Springfield — a densely populated, low-income, high-crime zone where responsible, righteous, hardworking people live cheek by jowl with ne’er-do-wells who have given up honest living in favor of stealing aluminum siding and selling crack.

For another, there’s Fricke’s comic-book-hero reputation — that whole nice-guy/crime-fighter amalgamation, wrapped in a shy, boyish, aw-shucks veneer.

“He’s just remarkable. I can’t praise him high enough,” says Mari Swaggerty, an East Side resident who hopes to see Fricke replaced with a clone. He returns her calls even on his days off and lets her know when he’s going to be out of town. “He’s always willing to listen to us and believe what we say. A lot of officers won’t believe us: ‘Well, how do you know it’s gunfire?’ I’ve lived here 17 years,” Swaggerty says, “and it’s now very easy to differentiate between firecrackers and gunfire.”

Fricke even gets the tacit endorsement of the legions he handcuffs. Ald. Frank McNeil, whose ward includes beat 300, says that, unlike previous NPOs, Fricke has never been the subject of a citizen complaint.

“If you’re breaking the law, you get arrested. He doesn’t cuss you out or beat you up, but you are going to jail,” McNeil says. “Even the unsavory characters, Matt treats them with respect.”

There’s no yardstick by which to gauge his success. Fricke doesn’t keep arrest stats or track how many nice letters people write about him to the police chief. “As an NPO, you judge yourself by neighborhood feedback,” he says.

By that measure, he rates at least an A. When I went on a ride-along with Fricke last year, shortly after he had helped SPD’s narcotics unit identify and arrest 40 drug dealers in a single massive sweep, he got waves from the seniors, grudging acknowledgment from teens, and kids shouting, “Freaky! Freaky!” on every street corner. One man flagged him down to ask, “Do I have a court date tomorrow?”

Some people were happy to see him; others weren’t. But everybody knew him, and he knew everybody, often by name, nickname, family connection, and, in some cases, gang affiliation.

“My job is to get to know people,” he says. “If you’re going to succeed over there, that’s something you have to know.”

He has his own way of getting acquainted. I remember watching Fricke and his friend Officer Chris Russell, NPO of the adjacent beat, at last summer’s Juneteenth celebration. It was one of those saunalike days, yet these two cops were going full-throttle with the kids on the sunbaked basketball court — gun belts, radios, Kevlar vests, and all — as their colleagues sat watching from the shade.

Still, Fricke doesn’t see any difference between himself and the other officers. “I’m not that special,” he insists. “Ninety-nine percent of the guys, especially on the East Side . . . there’s some really good officers working over there.”

He admits to being a creative thinker, teaming up with Russell to install security cameras at a problematic convenience store and barricades at a popular teen cruising ground. They carry basketballs and lawn chairs in their cars, giving them the ability to instigate a pickup game or camp out on a drug dealer’s front lawn.

Swaggerty, who lives on a street where six drug dealers were caught in last spring’s sweep, says that Fricke found a novel way to get rid of the crew that took their place: “Matt would just park in their driveway to do his paperwork. He caught them with illegal weapons a number of times,” she says. Now they’re locked away for good.

But when I tried to find out why he’s supposedly irreplaceable — why writing about him would scare everyone away from the East Side NPO job — no one had a logical explanation. Each anecdote I heard about Matt Fricke boiled down to two notions: Work hard and treat other people with respect.

No way could these simple ideals be rare commodities at SPD. These are basic concepts that all officers should have running through their veins. There must be an ample supply of Springfield cops just like Fricke. With all my heart and soul, I believe that is so.

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