Murders up, but Chicago police have cleared the most killings with arrests since 2005

Officials say evidence from surveillance cameras and other technology has played a big role in those arrests. Still, the clearance rate in 2020 is lower than last year’s.

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Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan at a news conference in August.

Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan at a news conference in August.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Though the number of killings in Chicago is sharply up, police officials say they’ve cleared more murder cases this year by making arrests than in any year since 2005.

They say two key factors have been teaming homicide detectives with gang officersand the use of evidence from surveillance cameras and cell phones.

The fatal shooting of a transgender woman in June was one of the cases in which video helped solve a murder case.

Police say surveillance cameras captured images of Orlando Perez walking on Selena Reyes-Hernandez’s block the day of her killing.

Police say surveillance cameras captured images of Orlando Perez walking on Selena Reyes-Hernandez’s block the day of her killing.

Chicago Police Department

Orlando Perez, 18, confessed to killing 37-year-old Selena Reyes-Hernandez after going home with her and learning she was transgender, according to prosecutors.

Surveillance video showed him leaving her Chicago Lawn home, returning in half an hour with his face covered, taking out a gun, hopping a gate and then leaving minutes later, authorities said.

Selena Reyes-Hernandez.

Selena Reyes-Hernandez.

Facebook

It was one of the 329 murder cases the police department has closed this year as of Monday —195 with at least one arrest. The arrests involved killings that occurred in 2020 and also in previous years.

For all of 2019, the police cleared 265 murder cases —113 of them by arrest.

The rest were cleared “exceptionally,” meaning the suspect was dead or the police decided there were other barriers to prosecute the case, such as uncooperative witnesses. Through Monday, the department has cleared 134 murders exceptionally this year compared with 152 for all of 2019.

Despite the rise in murder arrests, the department’s clearance rate is worse than in 2019 because the number of killings has soared, with 739 through Monday, compared with 495 for all of last year.

To determine the clearance rate, the number of cases cleared is divided by the number of killings in the current year.

The rate through Monday was 44% compared with 50% for the same period last year, 41% in 2018, 34% in 2017 and 29% in 2016.

“I would say that this year has been a remarkable success for the detectives,” said Brendan Deenihan, chief of detectives since February.

He said he has followed the recommendations of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank that in a report last year called for an overhaul of the detective bureau to boost the number of murder arrests.

The think tank said the department should create a designated homicide unit, increase the number of detective headquarters around the city from three to five, have sergeants and lieutenants whose only role is to supervise murder cases and have detectives take the lead on no more than six new murder cases a year.

“Most of what we are doing is a result of that PERF report,” Deenihan said.

Sgt. Patrick Kinney showing the Area Technology Center’s video processing capabilities at Area South Headquarters in April 2019.

Sgt. Patrick Kinney showing the Area Technology Center’s video processing capabilities at Area South Headquarters in April 2019.

Chicago Police Department

He said the installation of “Area Technology Centers” in the five detective headquarters has boosted the department’s ability to use social media, video surveillance and cellphone data to solve killings. He said the centers rely on open-source social media unless a detective obtains a search warrant to get into a protected account.

Deenihan said it’s gotten “harder and more complicated” to be a homicide detective than when he joined the department 24 years ago.

“I like to call them information managers now,” he said of detectives, “because they have to manage so much information coming at them on so many different levels in order to solve a case.”

Deenihan blames the steep rise in killings in Chicago and other cities mainly on the coronavirus pandemic. The civil unrest following George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer held him down by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes in late May “emboldened criminal acts that have led to these remarkable spikes in homicides,” Deenihan said.

David Olson, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, said the pandemic changed the mix of murder cases detectives have to investigate. He said the domestic violence killings, which have risen this year, are easier to solve because the suspect is usually known. There were more than 50 domestic killings this year through Dec. 7 — up 60% over last year — and police made arrests in 34 of those, or 68%.

David Olson, a criminology professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Criminology professor David Olson.

Loyola University Chicago

But most of the hundreds of other killings in Chicago this year were on the streets, sparked by gang rivalries, protection of drug markets and personal conflicts. Those have been even more difficult to solve during the pandemic, Olson said, with suspects concealing their identities with masks and fewer people outdoors as possible witnesses.

Witnesses to those crimes typically are members of the victim’s own gang and typically don’t cooperate with investigators, Deenihan said.

In a video the police department released this past week, Supt. David Brown said he wants homicide detectives to meet with people at sporting events and other community activities, which he said might help them build trust and ultimately solve more murders.

Detectives also need to demonstrate to prosecutors that they have a solid case. In the four years Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has been in office, prosecutors have rejected murder charges that the Chicago Police Department was seeking in, on average, nearly a quarter of the cases the police presented to them.

By comparison, during the last four years of Foxx’s predecessor Anita Alvarez’s tenure as state’s attorney, an average of 17% of Chicago murder cases were rejected for prosecution.

“State’s Attorney Foxx’s approach to justice within the nation’s second-largest prosecutor’s office is a contrast to how previous administrations operated,” Foxx spokeswoman Sarah Sinovic said in a written statement.

Sinovic pointed to Cook County’s history of wrongful convictions.

“Unlike her predecessors, State’s Attorney Foxx does not believe in kicking the can of responsibility to judges and juries to decide someone’s fate when the evidence is just not there — because this is not fair to those whose futures are on the line,” she said.

After a murder case is rejected, the police can present new evidence, and that sometimes can lead to prosecutors reversing themselves and approving charges, Sinovic said.

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