The Chicago Police Department’s annual murder clearance rate has reached a new low, department figures show.
Of the 650 murders tallied by police during 2017, the department cleared just 112 — or 17.2 percent — according to the figures, obtained by WBEZ using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
That means nearly five of every six murders committed during the year went unsolved.
The murder clearance rate has been worsening for decades. For a closer look at it, WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell sat down with retired Chicago homicide detective Gerald Hamilton at his home in the South Shore neighborhood.
Mitchell: You started as a Chicago cop in 1985, spent 13 years in the department’s patrol division, mostly on tactical and gang teams, then 12 years as a homicide detective — all here on the South Side. What changes did you see during your career that might help us understand why the murder clearance rate is so low?
Gerald Hamilton: A lot of things. Obviously community relations. Comedian Richard Pryor had a joke about [white folks] seeing the police differently: “Hello Officer Timpson.”
And, in black and brown communities, sometimes it was a more confrontational situation: “Get out of the car! Let me see your hands!”
That goes back generations. So it has an impact, obviously, because you need to have the cooperation of the community to effectively police the community.
Mitchell: When you started as a cop, the department had detective Cmdr. Jon Burge and a lot of alleged abuse going on.
Hamilton: First, I’m going to have to qualify what you are saying. Most police officers get up every morning and go to work. They have a family life. They’re just like you and me. And hopefully, they get to come home after their shift.
But there has been a history of abuses that have particularly impacted the community that I’ve lived in — the black and brown community. So it does have an effect in the sense that there’s some level of distrust.
It says on the police car, “We serve and protect,” but some people back in the day read that differently and thought it was, “Curb and collect.”
We would see most of the murders on the South and West Side. Those are the neighborhoods that need the police most. It’s ironic that those are also some of the communities that feel like the police aren’t necessarily there to serve them.
Mitchell: While you were a homicide detective, the department was ramping up its stop-and-frisk program. By 2007 the department was documenting almost a half million street stops per year. How did those stops affect your ability to put killers behind bars?
Hamilton: There is such a thing as proactive police work. I made a lot of street stops myself. You’d be surprised how often they helped solve crimes.
But if you don’t have enough street savvy and you stop kids that are walking in their prep-school uniforms — you stop them because there are four of them and you shake them upside-down and make them late for school — that’s it. That’s their first contact with police. What kind of impression are we leaving in their mind?
Mitchell: As this murder clearance rate has dropped over the years, we’ve also seen big changes in the structure of Chicago street gangs. Those organizations are now much more fragmented.
Hamilton: It was a strategy that came from the top of the police department. Basically, cut off the head of the snake and the snake will die. Well, the snake didn’t die. It just apparently got chopped up into a million little pieces. That has made it much more difficult to solve a lot of the crimes.
Before, if the Gangster Disciples went and did something, nearly all the GDs knew who did it. And eventually, somebody who maybe needed some help on a case or didn’t want to go to jail that day might be inclined to tell you exactly who did it and where the guns were.
Now you have much smaller street gangs. Some are just eight members with three pistols hidden. When one member gets pissed off and goes and shoots somebody in the face, it’s sometimes much more difficult for the detectives to connect the dots than it used to be.
Mitchell: It’s astounding that the murder clearance rate has dropped over the years despite the police department getting more and more technology to solve those crimes — everything from DNA analysis to surveillance cameras. How can that be?
Hamilton: The technology has increased a thousandfold. Now an officer can have just a nickname or a tattoo image and punch a button and, right there on the screen in front of you, there are possible matches and who they’ve been arrested with the last 10 years.
But the technology is no substitute for the connectivity to the community. You still have to have information and testimony from people in the community.
Mitchell: I was covering a court hearing the other day, and a retired detective was testifying about how, in the 1980s, there were not hardly any homicide detectives who were black. It was a job almost entirely reserved for white men. Three decades later, CPD ranks still don’t reflect the city’s racial composition. How important is it for the department to have more black officers and detectives?
Hamilton: It’s important on so many levels. If crimes were being committed in, say, Chinatown, and you had nothing but black detectives, they would be handicapped. They might not have a sense of the language. There would not necessarily be the level of trust that would get the cooperation and information.
I’ve got a lot of good friends that are still detectives and happen to be Caucasian. A lot of them are very dedicated.
But you do need people that are from the community — that live in the community, like I do. I have a vested interest. I’m not going to be so inclined to abuse people that I’m bumping into at Popeye’s Chicken.
Sometimes, the same sort of people would reach out to me at a crime scene and say, “Hey man, that ain’t what went down.” And I would arrange to meet them somewhere and we would talk.
There are a lot of people in the community who do want to see these crimes solved. These crimes impact them. We’re talking about murders! Every murder victim has brothers and sisters and people who went to grade school with them.
That’s where the information is — right there on the street level. And if you can operate on the street level, you’re going to be able solve a lot more murders.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear an audio version. Follow Chip Mitchell on Twitter at @ChipMitchell1.
This story has been updated to include more information about the police department's racial makeup.