Chicago’s Criminals Are Getting Away With Murder

Only 132 of Chicago’s 507 murders were solved last year. Why is the Chicago Police Department struggling to bring so many killers to justice?

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An illustration of the ratio of unsolved murders to solved murders
 

On a bitter cold February day—six months after her 16-year-old son, Cornell Ferguson, and his friend Johnqualas Turner were gunned down—Ashia Guy passes out fliers near the boarded-up house in Garfield Park where the boys drew their last breaths.

Though Cornell had been arrested several times for selling drugs, Guy does not believe he was in a gang or was killed in a drug-related dispute. The word around the neighborhood, she says, was that the shooter (or shooters) wanted to “make a statement” to the neighborhood—This block is mine—and fired on the boys for no better reason than that they were standing there.

After the murder, Guy, 35, then a dispatcher for a taxi company, moved with her three other children to Minneapolis to put distance between her family and the tragedy. But she didn’t give up on justice for her son. She started scraping together a reward for information that could help solve the case, eventually tapping her life savings to reach $10,000. She then took an eight-hour bus ride back to Chicago to announce it. Undaunted by the cold, she spends hours passing out fliers that read, in large capital letters:

CORNELL ASHAWN LORENZ FERGUSON
SUNRISE: JANUARY 16, 1996.
SUNSET: AUGUST 2, 2012.
MURDERED: 600 N. AVERS, CHICAGO, IL.

Listed are the $10,000 reward and her name and phone number. The names and numbers of her sister and mother are also included. As for the police? They’re not mentioned at all.

That’s no oversight. For Guy has just spent six agonizing months living through the Chicago Police Department’s abysmal record of solving murders.

The day Cornell was killed, Guy says, she beat the detectives to the crime scene, waiting for more than an hour before they arrived. For weeks afterward, she says, when she called the investigators assigned to the case for updates, they were either too busy to come to the phone or told her, “We’ll call you when we know something.” (Investigators did not return Chicago’s calls for comment.)

That’s when Guy decided to take matters into her own hands. “My son was no angel,” she says. “But I don’t want his case to slip through the cracks.”

More like the chasm. Only 132 of the 507 murder cases in the city last year were closed last year. That makes for a homicide clearance rate of 26 percent—the lowest in two decades, according to internal police records provided to Chicago. (The true picture is even worse; more on that later.) To put it another way: About three-quarters of the people who killed someone in Chicago in 2012 have gotten away with murder—so far, at least. “Those stats suggest a crisis,” says Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago.

It’s a crisis every bit as pressing as the city’s high homicide rate, because the former feeds the latter. If murderers aren’t apprehended, they’re free to kill again. If other bad guys get the feeling that there are few consequences for their actions, they too will be emboldened. “The word has to be out [on the street] that the cases are not being cleared,” Lurigio says.

Of course, the effects ripple out further. “It leaves a family devastated, without any sense of justice,” says Lurigio, “and it leaves an entire community with a sense of helplessness and despair.”

Given the record low clearance rate last year, more than 30 police sources, including current and former top commanders and 15 detectives, agreed to talk about the problem. These interviews—combined with the internal police data provided to Chicago—reveal a detective force that is undermanned and overextended, struggling against reluctant prosecutors and a notorious no-snitch code. Last year’s department-wide consolidation and reorganization, initiated by Superintendent Garry McCarthy, has made a bad situation even worse. As one South Side detective put it: “It’s a perfect storm of shit.”

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