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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Small Unsolved Murders maps

GOING THE DISTANCE: A March 2012 consolidation and reorganization moved nearly 350 detectives into bureaus further away from some of the city’s crime hot spots. Click the image to view the maps.

Garry McCarthy, a longtime New York City cop before he became the top cop in Newark, arrived in Chicago during a budget crisis that had begun years before, in the Daley era. As you may recall, a few months after taking over in July 2011, he said that Emanuel had asked him to cut $190 million from the department’s $1.3 billion annual budget. So the first two years of McCarthy’s tenure have been all about doing more with less.

The sweeping consolidation plan that he announced in March 2012 eliminated three of Chicago’s 25 police districts, closed two of its five detective headquarters (Area 4, which spanned the Near West Side and included downtown, and Area 5, which stretched from the Far Northwest Side to the Far Southwest Side), and transferred 300-plus detectives to other bureaus. The changes would save as much as $12 million, McCarthy said.

Unfortunately, the consolidation heaped still more pressure on homicide detectives, who were already struggling to keep up with bigger caseloads. Except for those detectives working in Area South (the police territory that covers roughly the southern third of the city), the realignment (and subsequent renaming) nearly doubled the area that many of them have to cover (see “Going the Distance,” right).

There are two big drawbacks here. One is that more detectives are working in neighborhoods they’re not yet familiar with. “All the expertise you once had is useless when you’re working on the other side of town,” says a detective from Area Central. “You might as well put me in a new city.”

Another big drawback to consolidation is that detectives find themselves farther away from crime scenes, sometimes by a dozen or more miles. Getting to the scene fast is crucial in any homicide investigation: Witnesses may scatter or fall victim to gang intimidation. Evidence may get trampled, tampered with, or blown away. Distance continues to be a problem later, when detectives must conduct follow-up interviews or track new witnesses in other parts of town. Says a former police official: “For every hour the detective spends in the car, that’s all time lost to the investigation.”

In what seemed to many detectives an ill-considered move, McCarthy’s consolidation removed all the homicide detectives from the West Side, where a good portion of the city’s murders occur. Under the old structure, these detectives worked in one of two places: the Harrison Area in East Garfield Park and the Grand Central Area in Belmont Cragin. Now they cover the West Side, but from as far as ten miles away, from their headquarters in North Center on the North Side and in Fuller Park on the South Side. Get this: There are now no homicide detectives stationed west of Western Avenue.

Small Unsolved Murders graphs

CRIME AND (LITTLE) PUNISHMENT: Chicago’s murder clearance rate in relation to the number of available detectives. Click the image to view the full set of graphs.

Last year’s clearance rate free fall appears to support the detectives’ concerns: As they moved farther away from crime hot spots, the clearance rates there fell substantially. While the rate has been slipping by three to five percentage points each year since 2007, according to the internal police records, the drop in some of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods on the West and South Sides was more dramatic. In the police district where Cornell Ferguson was killed, for example, the rate fell from 32 percent in 2011 to 18 percent last year (see “Crime and [Little] Punishment,” right).

“It takes us 45 minutes to get to a crime scene because we’re at Belmont and Western and the shooting is at Austin Avenue [on the Far West Side]—and we’re talking about sirens going, blowing red lights,” says a homicide detective assigned to the Area North bureau. “I don’t know what they were thinking when they decided to close the two areas. The city is too large.”

Not true, says Thomas Byrne, the chief of detectives, who helped devise the new district plan after McCarthy closed Areas 4 and 5. “Let’s say it takes five or ten minutes longer,” says Byrne. “Are we losing clearance rates because of that? Not in my opinion. I hate to get hung up on where they report.”

Byrne points out that the detectives are constantly out working, not tethered to their desks. “You have to get out from our building and into the neighborhoods.” What’s more, he calls last year’s clearance rate drop “an anomaly.”

The bigger problem may not be that it’s harder for detectives to get to witnesses but that it’s harder for witnesses to get to detectives. People who want to help police now have to travel miles across town—for some, that means traversing multiple gang territories—to meet with investigators. Some detectives say many witnesses simply won’t do it.

“Some witnesses have never been to the other side of the city,” says a homicide detective on the South Side. “When you’re asking someone if they will go from the West Side to Belmont and Western, they say, ‘Are you crazy?’ It might as well be the other side of the world.”

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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.

12 months 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!?!?

9 months 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.

1 week 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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