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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?

(page 3 of 4)

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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