Covering the city’s relentless violence can be difficult to do in a way that moves beyond grim body count stories that dehumanize victims. WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk tries to tell stories that help readers care and that hold the powerful to account. Rob Wildeboer, WBEZ’s senior editor of criminal justice, selected stories from the past year—from gun violence, to police accountability, state laws and the role of the media in a healthy democracy—that hold important lessons for the year to come.
In 2019 Chicago continued a reckoning with police violence that began four years ago, when the city released the dashcam video of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald. In January, Van Dyke’s trial ended with an 81-month sentence for murder, delivered by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan. WBEZ’s Criminal Justice team documented the sentence and its meaning in the final episode of “16 Shots,” a 30-episode podcast about the shooting and the trial.
In February a mass shooting at a manufacturing plant in west suburban Aurora shined a light on Illinois’ flawed system of licensing gun owners. The shooter, Gary Martin, had his gun license revoked, but authorities failed to follow up and ensure that Martin did not possess any firearms. In this story, WBEZ reporter Patrick Smith discovered that thousands of other revocations had been essentially meaningless, leaving guns in the hands of people deemed by the state to be ineligible. WBEZ senior editor Alex Keefe reported on this exact same issue in 2013, but legislators failed to take the actions then that would have prevented Martin from having the gun he used in the Aurora shooting.
Chicago continued to wrestle with the police department’s dismal rate of solving murders in 2019, a problem that has been reported on extensively. Our reporters found new angles on this important policy issue in the series “Getting Away With Murder,” which examined why Chicago police have struggled to solve murders. This story shows that even when police solve crimes the killers often go unpunished, a brutal truth for the relatives of victims.
WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk also looked at possible solutions to violence that don’t involve the criminal justice system as part of our series “More Than Police.” Here Chip Mitchell examines the city’s safe passage program, started when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed nearly 50 schools in 2013.
In this story, reporter Chip Mitchell examined the city’s recent hiring spree of police officers. He found that, despite promises from city leaders to make the department more diverse, black representation declined, a missed opportunity for the city that won’t come around again soon.
So this last story is just weird: Reporter Shannon Heffernan had heard that prisoners in Illinois with eye troubles could get one eye fixed but not both. It sounded strange and the Illinois Department of Corrections was refusing to provide information as was the private company that has a contract to provide healthcare in the state’s prisons. Shannon kept digging, and talked to inmates and reviewed records and lawsuits going back years. Shortly after her story was published the department instructed the prison healthcare provider that it could not deny inmates eye surgeries to correct vision in both eyes.