Here’s Why Chicago Police Solve So Few Of The City’s Murders | WBEZ
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Here’s Why Chicago Police Solve So Few Of The City’s Murders

Updated Wednesday, October 30, at 5:20 p.m.

Chicago Police Department detectives do not have direct phone lines or individual voicemail. Until recently, they weren’t provided with cell phones. They don’t have their own computers or even their own desks.

Their offices are so far from assigned neighborhoods it might take more than an hour to reach a murder scene.

Those are some findings of a Washington-based group that studied CPD’s Bureau of Detectives to recommend ways the department might boost its dismal rate of solving murders and shootings.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson made clear the 116-page report, prepared by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), won’t be easy medicine for the department to swallow.

“But it’s only by evaluating these criticisms and making improvements that our department will be able to improve,” Johnson said Wednesday at a news conference timed for the report’s release.

No homicide unit

Chicago stands out among the nation’s largest cities both for its high murder rate and for the number of its murders that go unsolved. In recent years, CPD has been clearing only about 4 of every 10 murders in the city. The report says Chicago clearance rates are lower than New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

A WBEZ analysis of police data this month found that Chicago’s murder clearance rate is even worse when the victim is African American — an issue the PERF report did not address. And of the cases solved by police, WBEZ found, many are dropped by prosecutors or result in “not guilty” verdicts.

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, began last December. PERF says it interviewed more than 50 CPD members, two Cook County prosecutors, and representatives of the county’s medical examiner’s office and the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates shootings by officers and some police misconduct. PERF says it also reviewed CPD directives, homicide logs, intelligence reports, organizational charts, sample crime reports and clearance data.

PERF’s top recommendation is to establish an around-the-clock unit devoted solely to investigating homicides in each geographic office of the detectives bureau.

Another recommendation is to reverse a 2012 budget-cutting move by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who closed two of the bureau’s five geographic offices — a decision panned for distancing detectives from the communities they serve.

“When you went from five areas to three areas … there wasn’t much planning,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler said at the news conference. “So consequently you’d have detectives all pushed into three areas. Some of them didn’t have desks, some of them didn’t have computers, so it really wasn’t thought out well.”

Detectives say it can now take more than an hour to drive through traffic and reach a shooting scene, according to the report. “Witnesses may no longer be on the scene, and evidence could become contaminated due to a variety of reasons (e.g., weather conditions, the presence of numerous first responders).”

Understaffed

Another PERF recommendation is to increase detective staffing. The report lists CPD with 1,127 detectives, which amounts to 8.4% of the department’s sworn officers. That compares to 11.4% in New York City and 15.4% in Los Angeles.

“The Bureau of Detectives is understaffed, and there are not enough sergeants to oversee individual teams of homicide detectives,” the report says.

The report recommends limiting caseloads so that a detective is the lead on no more than 4-6 new homicides a year.

CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Wednesday the department has added nearly 300 detectives in recent years. He said a separate study will determine whether that number is enough.

“This will be a multiyear improvement project and will get the same level of commitment as our consent decree,” Guglielmi said, referring to a police-reform agreement that is enforceable by a federal judge.

The report also called CPD’s services for victims and witnesses “insufficient, potentially contributing to a reluctance among victims and witnesses of crimes to cooperate with the police,” an issue exposed by WBEZ this month.

CPD personnel told PERF that they lacked any way to assist witnesses who had been threatened.

“The procedure was to tell the witness to call 911,” the report says. “An officer would respond and take a report that would be investigated a few days later. Detectives do not have any option for getting a witness to a safe place that same day.”

For CPD to gain community trust, the report says, “it is imperative that CPD protect those witnesses who have agreed to come forward.”

Nonfatal shootings

Another recommendation is for CPD to pay more attention to nonfatal shootings.

“A nonfatal shooting is basically a failed homicide, and a focus on nonfatal shootings can prevent homicides,” Wexler said. “So that’s a huge area [in] which we think there’s a real opportunity.”

The report praised a recent CPD decision to issue cell phones to detectives: “This is an enormously positive step and should facilitate communication between detectives and victims’ families and witnesses.”

The department said it is also investing in new technology for solving crimes, including three tech centers based in the geographic offices. Those centers include “state-of-the-art” hubs to process video collected from throughout Chicago.

CPD said it is also setting up a new team of detectives to help manage and implement the recommendations. The department said that team will draw from analytics, auditing and project-management systems established by the consent decree, which took effect in March.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who attended the news conference, pointed out the difficulty of solving homicides.

“There are detectives out there every single day working their butts off — working hard, long hours, doing everything that they can with the tools that they have,” Lightfoot said. “We need to do better for them. And this report, I think, gives us a roadmap to do that.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

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