Chicago detectives get a lesson from victims’ families

Written By BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter Posted: 04/06/2014, 02:27am
Array At the Chicago Police Education and Training Academy, the police have launched a new training program for their detectives. Joy McCormack, Founder of Chicago's Citizens for Change talked about her own personal story of the loss of her son. She wears a dog tag with the photo of her son, Francisco Valencia around her neck. | Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times

Joy McCormack stood before a classroom of detectives. It was a tough crowd. Some doodled on their notebooks. Others cradled their chins in their hands, seemingly bored to death.

McCormack was at the Chicago Police Academy recently to talk about her son, Frankie, who was murdered at a Halloween party in 2009. Around her neck she wore a pendant displaying a photo of her 21-year-old.

“I want to help you for a few minutes to imagine what it’s like to walk in our shoes,” McCormack said.

She told the detectives her son wasn’t a gang member. He was a senior at DePaul University, destined for law school. He was going to receive a Lincoln Laureate Award for outstanding college students. And he was nominated to intern at the White House.

Now she had their attention.

McCormack said that on Oct. 31, 2009, her son, Francisco “Frankie” Valencia Jr., was at a party where he knew almost no one.

Gang members were asked to leave the party. One returned with a TEC-9 pistol. And Valencia was shot in the neck. Two Maniac Latin Disciples were convicted of the murder and sent to prison in 2011.

“As a parent, you can’t believe this could happen to you. That this happened to your family. To your son. Yet it has and it did. You need to understand what happened that night. Every second. Every detail.”

After her son was killed, McCormack founded Chicago’s Citizens for Change, an advocacy group for families of murder victims. Her presentation was part of new comprehensive training for every detective on the Chicago Police Department.

While McCormack said her own experience with detectives was good, she spoke of one woman who became suicidal after her dealings with a detective in her son’s murder investigation.

McCormack said the detective used the wrong name when referring to the woman’s slain son. The detective called the woman’s son a “gangbanger.”

McCormack said the detective could have reviewed the case file to become familiar with the facts before calling the mother. The detective could have been more sensitive to the grieving woman, too.

“Her big question was, ‘do the police really care?’ ” McCormack said.

She also pointed out that families of murder victims aren’t allowed to have contact with the body at the morgue. They must identify the body on closed-circuit video, she said.

She encouraged detectives to try to allow families to see their slain loved ones in the hospital and say their goodbyes there.

“When you have troubling information for a family, visit — don’t call,” added the Rev. Susan Johnson, executive director of Chicago’s Citizens for Change and pastor of Hyde Park Union Church.

Johnson said the organization is willing to serve as a bridge between detectives and victims’ families — and help resolve their differences.

Under a law that went into effect in 2012, police agencies in Illinois must put their lead homicide investigators through 32 hours of such training.

But Chicago Police Department officials went further. They expanded their program to include every detective, whether they primarily handle burglaries, sex crimes or murders. The program started in October at the police academy on the West Side. Nearly 1,000 detectives will eventually complete the training.

It has included a class by former police Supt. Phil Cline about the case of Lori Roscetti, a medical student who was kidnapped, raped and bludgeoned with a chunk of concrete in 1986. Four men went to prison for the attack, but their convictions were reversed later when DNA testing failed to link them to the crime.

An FBI agent has lectured the detectives on using social media to catch crooks. An assistant Cook County state’s attorney has explained what evidence prosecutors need from detectives to file charges.

And there’s been a heavy emphasis on forensic science, including facial recognition software and blood-spatter analysis.

When the detectives are state-certified as lead homicide investigators at the end of the course, they will be able to handle tasks now assigned only to evidence technicians.

That includes collecting DNA evidence by swabbing a consenting suspect’s mouth; conducting gunshot-residue tests, and shooting evidentiary photos of people placed in line-ups.

Evidence technicians will still do most of that work. But the detectives won’t have to wait for techs when they’re unavailable, saving time.

One of the main goals of the new training is to boost the police department’s rate of solving crimes, said John Escalante, chief of detectives. Last year, detectives cleared about a third of the murders that occurred in 2013.

“You never know whether what you are working on today will lead to something bigger — even a murder investigation,” Escalante said. “That’s something I emphasized with the first class.”

During the recent training session, detectives were introduced to the department’s new facial recognition technology.

The software scans the department’s vast gallery of mug shots for arrested people who look similar to images of unidentified suspects that detectives submit for comparison. Usually, the images of the suspects come from surveillance video.

The system looks for points on the face — ears, nose, chin — to make the comparisons.

When it comes up with a mug shot that seems to match the suspect, the detectives need to be careful, instructor Carl Hattula warned. They could still be different people.

He showed the detectives photos of look-alike celebrities to emphasize his point. On a big screen, he displayed a photo of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith next to a photo of actor Will Ferrell. They looked like twins.

A strong likeness doesn’t constitute probable cause to make an arrest, said Hattula, a detective. It simply provides detectives with a name to check out, he said.

“It’s just another investigative tool to use to gather additional evidence to establish probable cause,” he said.

But it can provide a good lead, as it did in a recent string of 19 burglaries.

Hattula said facial recognition technology found a similarity between the unidentified burglar captured on surveillance video and a mug shot of Rodney Burton.

In January, detectives received permission to follow Burton and allegedly saw him exit a store in the 400 block of West Huron with a bag that contained burglary tools, stolen electronics and Blu-ray discs. He was charged with burglary.

After Hattula gave the detectives his PowerPoint lesson on facial recognition technology, they took a long break. They returned to hear from McCormack, Johnson and Andrew Holmes of Chicago’s Citizens for Change.

Holmes, a “crisis responder” for the group, acknowledged that victims’ families could do more to help the detectives.

He said he encourages the families of murder victims to pick a representative to talk to detectives. He said he asks them not to call every day.

“We understand the emotional toll it has on you to have families coming at you day after day,” Holmes told the detectives.

Afterward, they were asked to critique the presentation.

Some detectives checked “neutral” when asked whether it would help them in their work.

But others said they were glad to hear the perspective of victims’ families.

“It was definitely an eye-opener,” one wrote.

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