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.”

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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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