Digging into the details on Chicago’s murder clearance rate

Padded clearance stats and stalled court cases do little to boost either public confidence or police morale, as one expert says.

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Police crime scene tape. A Sun-Times analysis found that in most murder cases categorized as “cleared,” no suspect was ever charged.

Police crime scene tape. A Sun-Times analysis found that in most murder cases categorized as “cleared,” no suspect was ever charged.

Sun-Times files

When Chicagoans hear a murder case has been closed, they more than likely assume the case has been solved, a suspect has been charged, and the wheels set in motion for justice to be served.

But as the Sun-Times’ Andy Grimm reports in an analysis of the Chicago Police Department’s 2021 murder clearance rate, that’s not the case in a startling — in fact alarming — number of murders.

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Some of the discrepancy is due to the way CPD calculates its murder clearance rate. Some of the difference can be laid at the door of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, which, as Grimm found, has refused to bring charges in what is likely a record number of murder cases brought to the office by police.

Whatever the reason, the findings are sure to chip away even more at already low public confidence in both CPD and Foxx’s office.

To counter 2021’s grim homicide statistics, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown has touted the increased number of murders considered “cleared”: 400 in 2021, the most in 19 years, Brown says. Based on the official CPD tally of 797 homicides last year, that’s a clearance rate of just over 50%.

But 199 of those cases were closed “exceptionally,” which means no one was charged. And one in seven cleared cases involved a murder committed more than 10 years ago.

In all, CPD actually made arrests in fewer murder cases than in 2020, when 209 people were charged.

CPD, it must be noted, still has too few detectives to investigate homicide cases. Recent hires have helped, but additional hiring must be a top priority.

As well, CPD uses the FBI’s formula for calculating homicide clearances, dividing the number of all cases solved, no matter when a murder took place, by the number of homicides in a given year.

Using the FBI’s formula sounds reasonable. It’s better to solve a murder years later than not at all, and detectives deserve credit when they do so. But solving more murders, more quickly, is essential, particularly when Chicago has more homicides than New York or Los Angeles, which are much larger.

A spokesperson for Foxx cites state laws that raised the bar for evidence in murder cases as the reason why prosecutors last year turned down the most cases ever in Foxx’s six-year tenure. Which begs the question: Is the same happening in other state’s attorney’s offices across Illinois?

The public deserves answers to that question and others, given widespread skepticism about Foxx’s track record on crime-fighting.

Padded clearance stats or stalled court cases do little to build either public confidence or police morale, as one expert told the Sun-Times.

For Chicago to truly be a world-class city, curbing gun violence, solving more murders and working aggressively to hold killers accountable is job No. 1.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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