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In February, when police announced charges against the two alleged gang members suspected of killing Hadiya Pendleton—a crime that made headlines nationwide because the teenager had just performed at President Obama’s inauguration—McCarthy gave Chicagoans a sense of how today’s investigations are conducted. “The community provided a lot of tips,” he said in a news conference, surrounded by the officers who worked on the case. “None of them panned out, nor did they lead to closure in this particular case.”
He continued: “However, I can’t say enough about the men and women who are standing up here today. If they look a little tired . . . that’s because they have been working 24 hours, seven days a week since this incident occurred.”
Solving murder cases is very difficult, even when the community helps the police and even when the case draws the resources that come from the political attention brought by Obama’s interest. But it can be done, and relatively quickly—Pendleton was killed on January 29, and charges were announced on February 11—provided that the time and manpower are there.
In the last few months, city officials have responded to manpower complaints with the class of new detectives, and there are whispers that another batch is coming this spring. They have also floated ideas to crack what they see as the main reason for the rising difficulty in solving murders: the no-snitch code of Chicago’s streets.
Not snitching is so deeply ingrained in high-violence neighborhoods that many witnesses, and often even the victims themselves, won’t help detectives with their investigations. McCarthy and Emanuel repeat that explanation every chance they get, including during February’s graduation ceremony. “One of the things that we talk about frequently is the difficulty we have . . . breaking the no-snitch culture and how it affects your investigations,” McCarthy told the new detectives. “Without a cooperating complainant, how can you close a case?”
But you’ve got to ask: Has the clearance rate drop, particularly last year, meant that people are suddenly cooperating significantly less? Was the code of silence really that much stronger in 2012 than in 2011, when the clearance rate was 34 percent, or, for that matter, in 2010, when it was nearly 40 percent? (Or, if you use the police department’s official numbers, 51 percent in 2011 versus 37 percent last year?)
Several current and former officers say that the no-snitch code has become the excuse du jour for city officials to spin the public and avoid sharing the blame. Others caution against placing too much blame on the communities. “To say the only thing that’s having an impact on this clearance rate is the fact that people are not coming forward is not a complete answer,” says Jody Weis, the police superintendent before McCarthy.
And yet the department has pitched a PR campaign featuring local celebrities (they won’t yet reveal who) to encourage residents to cooperate with detectives. There’s also a proposal to install street-side drop boxes, similar to office suggestion boxes, in which people with information about homicides can anonymously tell police what they know. (The idea quickly drew jeers from rank-and-file officers. “This has to be the dumbest idea the CPD has ever come up with,” one commenter wrote on the blog Second City Cop.)
Dumb idea or not, the focus on breaking the code of silence is no joke, officials say. “The bottom line: The easiest and fastest way to solve cases and hold people accountable for the crimes they committed is to get cooperation from the public, period,” says Dean Andrews, deputy chief of detectives.
Andrews and other police officials say that the homicide clearance rate has improved so far in 2013, and as of March was 66 percent. But, to be clear, half of the cases were cleared exceptionally, and that percentage only reflects the first 10 weeks of the year.
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Even before Ashia Guy became a grieving mother, she and her family were familiar with what happens in most murder cases in Chicago. Last April, her half sister, Shene’e Howard, lost her 62-year-old father, Harold Howell, days after he was robbed and badly beaten inside his Old Town apartment. While the family was encouraged to see detectives at the scene of the crime, they grew less patient as the investigation dragged on.
Their frustration boiled over when detectives conceded they had made little progress. The family pressed for more information, asking about their leads and witnesses. “Don’t you have any snitches?” they asked.
One detective told the family that he was among the hundreds who had moved in the redistricting. All of his best sources were back on the South Side, not near Old Town, he explained.
The family was furious.
“Thank your mayor for that,” the detective replied.
Additional research by Abigail Tracy