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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Police can count murder cases as “cleared” (solved) even when:

• The suspect has fled the country

• The suspect is in prison for another crime

• The suspect has died

• A victim refuses to press charges

• Prosecutors don’t approve charges

On February 8, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Superintendent McCarthy, and hundreds of Chicago police officers and their families gathered in the Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier for an important ceremony: the graduation of 70 officers from detective training school. This marked the first time since 2008 that the cash-squeezed department was adding to its detective ranks, a fact that Emanuel and McCarthy proudly mentioned in speeches.

After the ceremony, McCarthy posed for pictures with the graduates and then held an impromptu news conference. The first question cut right to the chase. “Is improving the homicide clearance rate the biggest challenge for this new class?” a reporter asked. “And where is that rate at right now?”

The response was vintage McCarthy, a cop who can answer questions like the slickest politician. “The number is low,” he said calmly. “And off the top of my head I’m not positive because it fluctuates and it changes . . . . It’s not the number that we had this year; it’s the total number that we cleared. So you could potentially have 110 percent clearance. If you look at it just for 2012 or just for 2011, that’s not how the number is recorded. So I’m not positive what it is.”

That actually wasn’t doublespeak. Because it can take years to solve some murder cases, the Chicago Police Department reports the homicide clearance rate in two different ways: the annual rate (the total number of cases cleared in the same calendar year in which the crimes occurred) and the cumulative rate (which adds in cases from previous years that cleared during that year).

To add to the confusion, the terms “cleared” (or closed) and “solved,” while often used interchangeably by police, don’t mean the same thing. You probably think that to solve a murder case is to find the killer, prosecute him, convict him, and put him in prison. And in some of the “cleared” cases, that happens.

But lots of other kinds of outcomes are included in the cleared stats too. For example, detectives can clear murder cases “exceptionally”—meaning they’ve taken the investigations as far as they can. They have identified the suspects and believe they have enough evidence to charge them, but the suspected killers wind up not being arrested, charged, or prosecuted.

Cases are cleared exceptionally (“ex-cleared,” in police parlance) for a laundry list of reasons, including if a victim refuses to cooperate, if the suspect flees the country, or if prosecutors refuse to approve charges because they deem the evidence insufficient. (For more reasons, see “Cleared Doesn’t Always Mean Cuffs,” above right.)

Last year, for example, 15 of the 132 cleared murder cases—11 percent—were cleared exceptionally, according to internal police records. “The ex-cleared helps your clearance rate quite a bit,” concedes a former top police official.

All of this makes for a confusing mess of numbers. When I asked for the department’s homicide clearance rates over the past five years, a police spokesman provided the following statistics: 56 percent in 2008; 51 percent in 2009, 2010, and 2011; and 37 percent in 2012. The data also showed that 43 of 146 cases (that’s nearly 30 percent) were exceptionally cleared in 2012. But the internal clearance stats provided by a well-placed police source differ markedly: 48 percent in 2008; 44 percent in 2009; 39 percent in 2010; 34 percent in 2011; and, as previously mentioned, 26 percent last year, with 15 exceptionally cleared cases.

What gives? The “official” stats include older cases solved during each of those years, plus the cases cleared exceptionally in those years. This may leave the public with the impression that the police have solved many more murders than they actually have. The internal clearance data do not count old cases. “The department can pick and choose its numbers,” says Dan Gorman, a detective and a vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. “It isn’t lying. It’s just another formula, another way of doing the math. But they are using old cases which are taking years to clear. A victim’s family is not looking for closure 20 years from now.”

* * *

Before he became Chicago’s police chief in 2003, Phil Cline was chief of detectives. During budget meetings, when he was asked to justify his payroll to city lawmakers, he would hold up a chart that compared the number of active-duty detectives with the annual murder clearance rates. “I showed them as they made more detectives, the clearance rate goes up,” recalls Cline, “and as detectives were depleted, the clearance rate goes down.”

If you apply Cline’s view to the five years during which the police department did not add to its detective ranks (2008 to 2012), it may be no coincidence that homicide clearance rates have hit rock bottom.

Cline was fortunate. He presided over the department during far better economic times than his successors. Nowadays, manpower has become the single biggest issue facing police. Cline had a force of roughly 13,500 under his command; McCarthy oversees around 12,000.

The department’s investigative side has been especially hard hit. In 2007, Cline had 1,164 detectives, each assigned to a single investigative unit: homicide, property crimes, sex crimes, special victims, and so on. McCarthy, by contrast, has 924 detectives divided among the various units. Once days off, disability, furlough, and special assignments are figured in, say union officials, the number of working detectives on any given day is probably closer to 600.

Translation: The detective division has more cases than it can handle. Teams of homicide detectives working on the South Side say they juggle as many as ten cases at a time. “You’re running from murder to murder to murder,” says one veteran homicide detective who asked not to be named. “You really want to take the time to work the case correctly, but you can’t, because as soon as you sit down to work one case, you get sent out on another.”

The 70 detectives newly minted in February will help, but their numbers don’t come close to keeping up with attrition. Not to mention the fact that the rookies have a steep learning curve after just six weeks of detective school and several months of field training, if that. “It will take at least two years for these new detectives to get good at what they do,” says Cline.

Police forensic investigators are also scarce. As of March, the department had only 14 of these highly trained specialists—CSI-style techies who notice the minute details at a crime scene and earn sergeant’s pay—down from about 40 in 2007. Increasingly, less specialized, lower-paid evidence technicians—trained to work on crimes such as robberies and thefts—are filling the gap.

Many homicide detectives complain that evidence technicians tend to overlook crucial evidence—cigarette butts, fingerprints, shards of glass—more often than do their better-trained counterparts. “Once you release that crime scene, you can’t re-create it,” says a South Side homicide detective who requested anonymity. “I have to stand over those guys [evidence technicians] to make sure they don’t miss something.”

Police officials acknowledge that, yes, money is tight and they’ve had to make tough staffing decisions. When forced to choose between money for investigations or for more beat patrols, it makes a certain kind of sense that department officials would choose the latter. Put more cops on the street to prevent killings in the first place, the thinking goes, and you’ll need fewer people to play Columbo afterward.

(Tight budgets may affect prosecutions, too. Many detectives say prosecutors, who are always mindful of expensive wrongful conviction lawsuits, are increasingly reluctant to approve charges in anything but the most open-and-shut cases. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office begs to differ. Says Fabio Valentini, chief of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau: “The standard has been the same” since the early 1970s.)

Homicide detectives are also expensive, earning top-of-the-scale pay—about $82,000 a year for someone with five years of experience—making their numbers harder to justify to City Hall bean counters. Plus, most are drawn from the general pool of patrol officers—so when the department adds a new detective, it typically loses a patrol officer.

Just as important, detective work is less likely to prevent the kind of if-it-bleeds-it-leads media attention that can cost police brass their jobs. “The department doesn’t get judged on whether they solve the homicide,” says one former high-ranking department official. “They get judged on whether they prevent it. There was very little incentive, and there is very little incentive, to actually solve the crime.”

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1 year ago
Posted by Help

Ask how much money the city saved. Answer NONE. Overtime for the D-unit is up astronomically. The buildings that were supposedly "closed" were not. The people leading the detective division were NEVER detectives. The consolidation was and still is a colossal mistake. Please fix it ASAP!

1 year ago
Posted by bobangone

The truth comes out. Fantastic investigative reporting. Incompetence meets the multiple spins and plans. Orwell said "in times of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act". Bravo to Chicago on a brilliant article. we are faced with a crisis instead of spin and blaming the lack of snitches we should haul out the mirror and look into it.

1 year ago
Posted by ChicagoD

By the way, the 9th District absolutely does not include Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, or Montclare. They're all in the 25th and closer to the 11th than the 9th. That kind of error always makes me wonder if the writer knows the city at all. Also, it looks to me as if what they describe as the 11th in the graphic is the 9th.

Am I missing something, or is the graphic a complete disaster?

1 year ago
Posted by J.T.

From the editors: Thanks, ChicagoD. Graphic fixed.

1 year ago
Posted by Who's to blame

There is a lot in this article that is right on point, but it goes off the rails trying to find someone to blame. Who's to blame? Everyone, which is another way of saying no one.

The world changed. People used to have more of a collective bond. Society used to demand justice at any cost. They wanted murderers executed. No more. Today, they want answers. They want assurances. Juries don't want any dirt on their hands and they look to let murderers go even for nonsensical reasons. Police used to strong arm criminals because that's what people wanted. Within the last 20 years, people turned on the police. They decided as jurors to give away thousands of tax dollars for police who were rude to felons and now they look to give away punitives that come from the police's own pockets. When felons are killed by the police, they get millions. So, police no longer strong arm the reluctant gangbanger witness.

People love DNA because it makes the decision of guilt for them. Less work for jurors. So, people demand that DNA be found on even the most mundane burglary case. Put this on top of every single rape allegation, even those the police can prove were lies, and any DNA request in a murder case will not be completed in less than a year.

People learn all about the world from TV dramas. Problem is the TV is all bull. DNA cannot be recovered in every case. Bad guys lie and they get lots of other bad guys to lie for them. None of these bad guys break down. They just lie and lie through the trial and beyond. In the four million Law and Order episodes you'd never find that one portrayed. It happens every day.

The bottom line is people really don't care until its someone they know who has been murderered. Its just another interesting drama that happens to be on the TV news. They're really more concerned about the why than the who. What do they care if someone else doesn't get justice?

1 year ago
Posted by Who's to blame

For example, Jodi Arias has been on trial for 10 years. The jury is still asking questions. Why?

How can police and prosecutors possibly investigate, charge, and convict thousands of murderers when a single murderer can grind the system to a halt and then turn around and make money off it?

1 year ago
Posted by Chazman1946

The clearup rate for murders back in the 1990s was around 90%, it is in the toilet now. The reason?

This is the crowning achievement of our politicians and the social engineers, who long ago decided that big, bad, brutish policemen were no longer needed. So it came to pass that in the 70's they started forcing females onto the department. That did away with height and strength requirements. They then decided that the correct rainbow of colors was needed. To accomplish this they lowered the aptitude tests and created quotas. That did away with intelligence and integrity requirements. Of course gays could not be excluded either. The ideal candidate for promotion became a black transvestite with a Spanish surname who had lesbian tendencies.

Our weapons were next on their agenda. Saps, zap gloves and the like were banned, little cans of pepper spray were issued (what a joke). Our shotguns were moved from the front seat to the trunk, from the trunk to the radio room and from there just disappeared. New ammunition was issued which was so inadequate it would ricochet off of car windshields. And God help you if you hit someone with your flashlight.

Finally the politicians got rid of the real Policemen. The Superintendent was fired and they hired an FBI weenie who never worked the street in his life. He, in turn, fired the Commanders who were real Policemen and replaced them with internal affairs weenies and gays and a decent sprinkling of color. Finally they sweetened the retirement pot offering health care to anyone wishing retirement, thus eliminating the last few remaining real Police. The result is a department that is befuddled, cow towed, weak and totally not feared by the thugs and gang bangers, but oh so politically correct.

The City has succeeded in ridding itself of the brutish dinosaur cops of old and has replaced them with little girls and yuppies who wouldn't know a bad guy if he crapped in their face. They also have a 50% increase in homicides this year and dozens of people shot every weekend. There are more people shot each weekend in Chicago than in Baghdad, Kabul or Detroit.

Rejoice oh liberals, you have gotten exactly what you wanted. Hope you enjoy it!

Sincerely, a retired old-school cop

1 year ago
Posted by Shawn Taylor

I do not consider keeping our police department thousands of officers short a productive "Strategy".

I do not believe when the mayor just scratches one thousand five hundred police officer vacancies off the budget it brings the department any closer to full strength.

I do not believe that refusing to send officers to a citizens 911 call and addressing crime by having the citizen make a report over the telephone is an adequate crime "Strategy"

I do not believe paying officers more than 1.5 million dollars a week in overtime to work their days off, after having already worked, understaffed, all week long is either a sound economic alternative to actually hiring the police officers we need nor do I believe our officers can be effective after working every day of the week.

Further, I firmly believe forcing our officers to work without a contract, without a fair raise, attempting to strip away the pensions they have worked for and paid into and then dangling overtime pay in front of them in a desperate attempt to shore up the woefully short number of officers patrolling our streets essentially forces those officers into a ridiculously dangerous situation. These officers perform the most dangerous job in our society and we have already buried more than 482 Chicago Police Officers Killed in the Line of Duty and continue to bury more every year. Mayor Emanuel's policy of whittling down the police department to a skeleton crew and his and McCarthy's choice to overwork them rather than hire an adequate number of officers is criminal mismanagement and will only result in more injuries and deaths. They should both be ashamed.

I do not believe McCarthy and Mayor Emanuel's practice of manipulating crime statistics and outright lying about the number a rate of crimes committed is fooling anyone, nor does it change the fact that you are more likely to be shot to death in Chicago than in Fallujah.

It doesn't change the fact that roaming bands of criminal thugs and gang members have overrun every corner of the city, including Michigan Avenue and the lakefront. McCarthy and Rahm referring to these violent sociopaths as "youths" or "teens" doesn't change the fact that they are physically beating and robbing citizens freely and shooting each other and innocent citizens to death.

I do not believe the police department's dismal rate of homicide arrests is the result of some ghetto "Code of Silence". The gang bangers and their friends and families have never cooperated with the police, it's nothing new. We just don't have anywhere near the number of officers or detectives to address the number of murders and shootings committed in this city. We can thank Richard M. Daley for starting this war of attrition against our police department and we can thank Mayor Emanuel and Supt. McCarthy for taking it to a new level.

I do believe that Garry McCarthy is an arrogant, unqualified, patronizing liar who wasn't welcome in either New York or New Jersey's police forces anymore and now he is practicing the same BS here that ended his career of the east coast. I do believe that he was hired by Mayor Emanuel to be the fall guy for the Mayor's plan to eviscerate the ranks of our police department, at the expense of the citizens safety.

I do believe McCarthy needs to be relieved of his position and an actual real Chicago Police Officer needs to be put in charge of getting this department back on track.

I do believe that the department hierarchy needs to be purged of the political machine hacks and completely unqualified individuals who have ascended via nepotism, favoritism and so-called "Meritorious" promotion.

Lastly, I staunchly believe that the catastrophic state of rampant criminality, murder and civil unrest is a direct result of the policies and practices of the Daley/Emanuel administrations and that it can now be laid squarely at the feet of Rahm Emanuel.

Chicago had 48% more murders than Detroit in 2012. Our murders n 2012 set a record for the city and the murder rate for 2013 is already exceeding that of 2012. The exodus of law-abiding tax paying citizens has already begun and accelerates every day. Soon the Chicago landscape will make Detroit look like thriving metropolis.

All of this is now on Rahm Emanuel's hands and his answer has been to eliminate police officers, close schools and try every tactic he can think of to renege on the City's pension obligation to the men and women who have sacrificed every day for decades in a battle to protect the citizens.

Meanwhile Emanuel continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on superfluous nonsense which serve only to enrich his friends through crooked contracts.

If we don't want Chicago to degenerate into a post-apocalyptic wasteland that makes Detroit look like a blissful urban oasis Rahm Emanuel must go and he must go NOW!

1 year ago
Posted by GoldGlover

Mr. Shawn Taylor, I believe you have said it all,and quite elegantly I might add. Not one single point was off the mark. The babbling spin meisters are slowley building up a history that even they will not be able get out from under.

1 year ago
Posted by ChiTownGal

Shawn Taylor, thank you for the eloquent and accurate assessment. McCarthy is about as bright as a door knob (we got the bad end of the bell curve here) and has integrity equivalent to lying to his own grandmother. Rahm is so arrogantly proud of his new parks and green spaces - who cares about green spaces if everyone has been shot dead!?!?

1 year ago
Posted by carolinian

Well stated, Mr. Taylor, but it isn't ineptitude on the part of your "leaders." A reading of history will reveal that mayhem is a necessary prequel to totalitarianism. Whether that mayhem is manufactured or simply allowed (as in this case) to flower is unimportant. When it gets bad enough, the people will demand that their freedom be taken in the name of safety. Mr. Emanuel is very familiar with the playbook, it is his bible. All that's necessary is the proper education of the people, and the leftists seized that institution 50 years ago. The mob is staging and nearly ready.

3 months ago
Posted by lost in the shuffle

This was a very good article. A lot of the reasons mentioned are very true. Three things that need to be explained in more detail are the simple fact that the States Attorney Office Felony Review Section is a serious problem. They only want cases that are "slam dunks". I've watched true crime shows on TV and the detectives get one witness explaining what happened and they get charges approved. In Cook County? Never ever ever ever would you get charges approved with one witness.

We had cases (homicide) with DNA, one eyewitness and one circumstantial witness. Felony Review did not approve this case stating they needed "more".

We had a case where a 16 year old was responsible for his 3rd shooting (that we're aware of). This kid is a one man crime wave. Felony Review "Continued Investigation" (or C I ed) this case instead of approving the charges. This case had two eyewitnesses and clearly was a good case. There was nothing further to be investigated. We called our supervisor who did an "override" of charges and we properly charges this offender as an adult.

What did the States Attorney's Office do at the branch level? They "nolle prossed" this case. They threw it out. They suck to put it bluntly and need to be held more accountable for these terrible clearance rates.

One homicide we had that had three eyewitnesses and a circumstantial witness was presented to Felony Review and they wanted to "reject" charges. This was absurd. We waited for a new shift of ASA's to start their tour, we got a better one who approved charges and the offender in this case was found guilty and sentenced to 54 years. Imagine if we didn't wait and accepted their previous decision to reject? Yes, exceptionally cleared/closed would have been the status if it was rejected.

Secondly, this TERRIBLE idea to consolidate the detective areas needs to be mentioned in more detail.

This horrible decision misplaced hundreds of unsolved homicide cases that need detectives to work them.

My partner and I never saw homicide again after the consolidation. No friends, no phone calls, see ya guys later.

Oh but wait, something came in from one of your old homicides, a possible new lead.

Well sir, we're no longer homicide and that district is no longer in our area.

Believe me if this case was close to being cleared, we'd do the follow up but its' not and Felony Review is gonna want a whole lot more.

We all have cases assigned to us that are hopeless as far as clearing them, they lack evidence and eyewitnesses. The last thing a detective needs is somebody else's hopeless case assigned to them. It's safe to say nothing is going to happen with the new lead.

Did the CPD save money by closing Areas 4 and 5? Hell no. Not one light was turned off. Those buildings are rarely used by smaller units and are empty well lit places with lots of computers that are not being used. The heat is still on and air conditioners still blow cool air into these floors as the weather changes.

Thirdly, you can blame the economy all you want for the drop in clearance but what really happened was Phil Cline was very capable Superintendent who understood the city and where crime came from. He understood the men and women who worked for the CPD. He knew how to get things done.

McCarthy and Weiss were bad ideas. Neither one of them knew anything about us or our city. Oh but they sure thought they did. They implemented strategies that outright just didn't work.

Garry thought our homicides were the result of robberies, maybe in New York sir,...not here. Our homicides usually are narcotics related, plain and simple.

Cline had set up something called 99 S. Confidential Street. I don't want to go into too much detail about this but in essence it delivered witnesses to detectives in a way that pissed off Felony Review to no end. Basically 99 S. Confidential Street was the CPD's way of "proffering" witnesses just like our friends at the States Attorney's Office do with witnesses doing time in our penitentiaries. Felony Review hates this because they want to be in charge of everything.

You mentioned in this article about us not being able to get people to step forward as witnesses to these crimes. You're right, nothing could be more true. We had an answer for it, an answer that got lost as politicians hired incapable supervisors who did not take the time to learn our city or what worked for us and demanded we accept their new strategies.

We need change. Hope it comes soon.

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