Ernie ''Pip'' McCowen impresses me with his quiet courage. As the police chief of Lincoln Heights, he's trying to clean up his hometown.
He takes extra pride in doing it right. This is where he went to school. This is where he's raising a family. It's home. So when something goes wrong, it hurts.
Two weeks ago today, he suffered a big hurt when somebody firebombed the Lincoln Heights police station.
Fire and smoke spread throughout the building that also houses Lincoln Heights' municipal offices and fire department. The latter is where Ernie - police chief since 1995 - has been fire chief for 23 of his 41 years.
The heat from the fire was so intense it melted the station's bulletproof glass. The offices where the chief used his off days to put down new carpeting and, just last month, put up drywall, had to be gutted.
The offices are being rebuilt. But the chief is still hot about the fire.
''We know who did it,'' he said through clenched teeth Thursday afternoon. ''Drug dealers.''
The chief seethed as he crammed his 5-foot, 10ï-inch, 296-pound frame behind a tiny desk in a makeshift office.
While it's in an undamaged corner of the municipal building, his temporary office reeks with the odor of charred wood.
''They were sending us a message with that fire,'' the chief said. ''And it was: Back off.''
Lincoln Heights police had been making arrests that cut into the drug dealers' crack cocaine trade.
''But we will give them an answer,'' the chief said. ''They won the battle. But we're going to win the war.''
Skirmishes between village police and drug traffickers have been going on for years.
''We replace five windshields and eight or nine tires a year on our cruisers,'' he said. ''They throw bricks, rocks or bottles or shoot an air rifle at your windshield. They stick ice picks into our tires.
''But that's expected.''
The firebombing was unexpected. So, too, has been the overwhelming support that has poured into the village from every one of the 52 police departments in Hamilton County.
''Everyone realizes,'' the grateful chief said, leaning on a typewriter marked Springdale P.D., ''that when you have a challenge to authority like this, it's not restricted to Lincoln Heights. It's everybody's problem.''
Springing from his chair, Chief McCowen offered to take me on a tour of the village.
We climbed into his unlocked cruiser, the one with the cracked windshield.
''BB gun,'' he explained as we drove off. ''The car was sitting in front of my house. Somebody shot the windshield when no one was around. Lincoln Heights criminals are cowards.''
Two blocks away, the car slowed as we passed the chief's house. Right around the corner from the house where he grew up, it was like all the other homes on the block, modest but well-kept.
A few doors away, a mom and her daughter stopped and waveed to the chief. They called him ''Pip.''
''That's my nickname,'' he said. ''Got it from my aunt. I don't know what it means. She told me, 'Don't ask. It's none of your business.' '' He drove without speaking, looking from sidewalk to sidewalk, for two blocks. Then he asked:
''What do you see?''
Pieces of paper and the contents of garbage bags littered the front yards of boarded-up houses and apartment buildings decorated with ''No Trespassing'' signs.
Four two-legged pieces of trash loitered in a nearby driveway. The chief rattled off the scrapes they'd had with the law. They recognized the car and scurried.
The chief shook his head as the group slithered down the sidewalk. ''To be born and raised in Lincoln Heights doesn't mean you're a criminal,'' he said. ''We're not all like them.''
Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.