Alumni Interview: Amanda Vanek
I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. My father was a policeman: Sergeant Larry Augustine, a career cop I idolized.
Dad used to tell us police stories over dinner. Never anything violent or scary—he kept that to himself—but his accounts of solving cases fascinated me.
While I looked up to Dad and his Chicago Police Dept. colleagues, I had a dream of my own. I wanted to fly. My dream was to be an airline pilot. I promised my parents that I was going to get my pilot’s license and fly them over the Grand Canyon for their 50th wedding anniversary.
After high school at Saint Ignatius College Prep, I was thrilled to be accepted by the U of I’s Institute of Aviation, the first college program ever certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to issue civilian pilots’ licenses. I was on my way!
Flying was incredible, and soon I was making solo flights around the Midwest. After graduating in 2001, I went home to Chicago where Dad encouraged me to apply to the Police Academy. Police work is important, he said. It can also be a great career, and I knew he wouldn’t mind seeing “Daddy’s little girl” follow in his footsteps.
It’s a good thing I made it through the academy because in 2003, at the age of 24, I was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that caused a rare condition called Cushing’s disease. That led to a series of surgeries and a fistful of meds I’ll be taking for the rest of my life. My flying days were over.
“Police work is like being an umpire in a baseball game. If you do it right, nobody notices.” —Amanda Vanek, ’00 BUS
I spent several months on desk duty, but sitting still made me feel like jumping out of my skin. Before long, I was in a rapid-response car and then bike patrol in the 18th District, which extends from the Chicago River north to Fullerton Avenue and from Lake Michigan to the river on the west.
People tend to think police work is like TV cop shows—full of violence. In fact, most of my work has to do with cooperating with Chicagoans. I’ve served as the department’s business liaison in the 18th District, working with more than 900 bars and restaurants that have liquor licenses, to ensure they follow the law. On holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, when crowds turn out to see the river turn green, I’m part of the planning that keeps the festivities from getting out of hand.
One new challenge is social-media trending: somebody posts a call to “party at North Avenue Beach” and the next thing you know thousands of people are there. We monitor social media and react, sending officers to the beach within minutes. Some call it crowd control. We call it public safety.
Much of police work is like being an umpire in a baseball game. If you do it right, nobody notices.
But the job can be violent, even deadly. Five years ago, CPD Commander Paul Bauer waved goodbye to me and left for a meeting at City Hall. Several minutes later, he saw a man wearing body armor and carrying a semiautomatic handgun—and pursued him. Soon there were calls going back and forth on our police-radio channel. I texted Paul: You hearing all this?
By then he’d been killed, shot six times in the line of duty across the street from City Hall.
That sort of thing knocks the wind out of you. There is nothing you can do but try to do the job even better in hopes of honoring officers like him.
Every year since then, I have joined fellow officers to remember Paul Bauer’s heroism. Last spring, I stood beside the mayor and my fellow officers, ringing a bell 29 times. Twenty-nine was his star number—the number on his badge.
I’m 44 now, not far from the pension my dad talked about when I joined the police department 21 years ago. It’s been a privilege to have a job I wouldn’t dream of trading for a pilot’s license.
Every morning, I look at a pair of pictures on a mantel in the home I share with my husband, CPD Lieutenant Marc Vanek, and our kids. One photo shows my dad, mom and me on the day Dad was promoted to sergeant. I’m an eight-year-old girl in a frilly dress, smiling at my hero.
Beside that picture is a photo of me in February 2014—the day I got promoted to sergeant. That was the day my dad saw me in my new uniform, with sergeant’s stripes on my sleeve, and broke down in tears. Daddy’s little girl was now a supervisor!
Today I wear Dad’s sergeant star number on my uniform. Every day is a new adventure—a chance to live up to his example and do my best for the CPD and the people of Chicago.