During a recent hearing, Chicago Police strongly denied that race has anything to do with the fact that murders are less likely to be solved if the victim is black and denied that the city’s overall murder clearance rate has been declining in recent years.   

The hearing was held Oct. 11 at City Hall and organized by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who was recently appointed chair of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Public Safety. The hearing was the first of three that the alderman, a former Chicago Police officer, plans to hold on public safety. The next one is scheduled to take place on Nov. 12. 

According to data obtained by WBEZ, 849 murders were committed between the beginning of 2018 and July 2019. “When the victim was white, 47 percent of the cases were solved during those same 19 months,” the article stated. “For Hispanics, the rate was about 33 percent. When the victim was African American, it was less than 22 percent.”  

Taliaferro directly referenced the article during the hearing, saying that he “was very alarmed by that report.” 

He also pointed to the fact that, when an unknown spree killer murdered two men in Rogers Park last fall, CPD devoted considerable resources to try to solve the case. The alderman wondered why CPD, in his opinion, doesn’t put as many resources into murders in majority-black communities.  

“We do that type of investigation on every homicide that we work on,” said Melissa Staples, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Detectives Bureau, in response to Taliaferro’s musing. She added that, because the Rogers Park murders got more media attention, the number of officers involved was widely reported, she said. That, however, doesn’t mean that number isn’t typical, she said. 

Brendan Deenihan, CPD’s deputy chief, denied that race had anything to do with how the police handle murder investigations. 

“The majority of all detective work is done on the South and West sides,” he said. “When we get a call in, we don’t make decisions based on someone’s race.” 

Deenihan said that the disparities that do show up are due to other factors. He said that around 80 percent of all murders are gang-related. Even in cases where they aren’t, witnesses in communities of color are less likely to come forward and victims are less likely to press charges than in other communities. 

‘Those aren’t excuses, those are just the most difficult cases to solve,” Deenihan said.

Taliaferro also took issue with the low number of detectives. As Staples noted, the number of detectives has historically ranged between 1,300 and 1,350. That number dropped to 850 when Staples became chief of detectives three years ago and has since gone up to 1,139. Deenihan said that 140 of the detectives investigate murders. 

Taliaferro wondered how those numbers compared to Los Angeles and New York City. Although the police officials acknowledged that the two cities’ numbers are higher, Deenihan argued that it wasn’t a fair comparison. 

“It appears, when talking to experts, Chicago is probably more similar to Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans,” he said. “I’d just be cautious to compare the city of Chicago just to L.A. and New York, because the systems are different and the culture is different.”‘ 

Taliaferro was dubious, saying that Los Angeles and New York are closer to Chicago in terms of population. And, given that both cities had large murder rates that went down significantly, he argued that CPD would be smart to follow their lead. 

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said that she wished she could provide her community with numbers showing that the murder clearance rates are going up, but her constituents feel that the opposite is true. 

“In our community, murders don’t get solved,” Mitts said. “I’ve just been hearing that for a long time. I have to have information in the 11th District. Show me [how many murders in the] 11th District have been solved, just give me a picture. I want to make sure that we’re getting the same care.” 

Staples said that she would be willing to provide the numbers to her. When asked what CPD has done to improve clearance rates, the chief said that the department benefited from advances in technology, particularly the ability to comb through video footage and cell phone data. She also mentioned an intelligence unit in the Cook County Jail. Deenihan touted the ShotSpotter, which tracks the location of gunshots. 

Both officials said that, in many cases, it’s not that they don’t know who the murderer is, it’s that they can’t get the testimony to prove it.

Taliaferro said that he wondered if the detectives are overburdened, given how many murder cases are open. 

“I think we have a decent number of detectives [to handle the caseload],” Staples replied. 

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) noted that, in 2012, the city reduced the number of detective bureaus from three to five. A large part of the West Side, which used to be part of Area West, was incorporated into Area North. 

As the result, Ervin said, West Side residents who wanted to meet with detectives had to travel to the intersection of Belmont and Western avenues. He argued that this made it hard for residents to reach the detectives and it takes longer for the detectives to travel to areas where a lot of their work happens. 

Ervin argued that he could live with only three bureaus, but he argued that it would make sense to move the North Bureau to where the West Bureau used to be. 

A few hours later, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that her 2020 budget proposal would call for restoring the shuttered bureaus. She billed it as a way to increase collaboration between detectives and police officers. 

Ervin also addressed the issue of residents being reluctant to collaborate with police, arguing that it wouldn’t change without more community outreach. 

“I firmly believe that if the department doesn’t take affirmative steps for community involvement, that code of silence will remain,’ he said. “[Kids’] first interaction with police should be in the classroom, with Officer Friendly and police explorers, and not on the hood of the car.”

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