Chicago Police detectives have solved fewer than one in five murders committed this year, the lowest rate of closing murder cases since at least 2006 — and likely a historic low, police statistics show.
Seven months into 2017, the city’s police department had “cleared” fewer than 20 percent of murder investigations involving homicides that had taken place since Jan. 1, adding to a recent dip amid a decades-long trend of unsolved homicides in the city, according to the police data studied by crime analyst Jeff Asher.
Last year, the city tallied 781 murders and only 204 arrests, a 25 percent clearance rate by Asher’s calculations
A homicide is considered cleared when an offender is arrested, charges are filed, or when the suspect is dead or has fled the country. Asher’s figures are based on cases closed in the same calendar year in which they occurred.
The Chicago Police Department says its murder “clearance rate” stands at 34 percent — a 5-percent improvement over last year — but CPD’s calculations are based on different parameters used by the FBI. The FBI counts the number of murders solved in a given year — even if the murder took place years earlier — against the number of slayings in the calendar year. So far this year, CPD has closed 142 murder cases, including 42 from previous years.
Either way, Asher notes the clearance rate has fallen nearly every year since CPD began posting data online in 2006, and that clearance rates probably are at a record low. In the 1970s and ’80s, the department regularly cleared around 80 percent of murders, according to Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that tracks clearance rates in cities nationwide using FBI data.
“The numbers will be very different, but the overall trend is the same, and it’s been getting worse for years,” Asher said.
Even using the clearance rate as calculated by the FBI, CPD trails the national rate of 64 percent. In Houston, the next-largest city in the U.S., more than half of all murders were cleared in 2016. The clearance rate in New York City hovers around 70 percent, according to Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit that tracks clearance rates in cities nationwide using FBI data.
Simple arithmetic is working against CPD: Detectives have solved roughly the same number of murders each of the last four years — around 220 or so, by department statistics — but the number of murders jumped 60 percent in 2016 and is up again this year.
In 2015, the city logged 495 killings and CPD closed 227 murder cases, a clearance rate of 47 percent by CPD’s reckoning. Last year, detectives closed out 225 murders, but the total number of killings soared to 781— for a clearance rate of just 28 percent.
The declining solve rate, and Chicago’s relatively higher number of killings compared to other cities, is a factor of diminished staffing in the detective ranks, said Thomas Hargrove, a Washington D.C. journalist and head of the Murder Accountability Project, who tracks clearance rates in cities nationwide using FBI data.
“We believe one of the primary driving forces is lack of resources,” Hargrove said. “There are not enough cops, and not enough trained detectives in Chicago. If you don’t have adequate boots on the ground in a war, you’re not going to win.”
CPD spokesman Frank Giancamilli said the department has included hiring 200 more detectives in its two-year plan to add 1,000 officers to the payroll. The added hiring would bring the total number of detectives to around 1,200 from the 800-plus currently on the job, about the same level as in 2008.
CPD officials also say guns are used in a higher percentage of killings in Chicago than in other large cities — and that firearms leave behind less physical evidence than fatal attacks with knives or bare hands. Likewise, the fragmented nature of the city’s gangs make it harder to identify suspects or convince witnesses to come forward.
Also, the public image of the police — never strong in the communities where the most murders are committed — has probably never been lower, said Flint Taylor, a longtime civil rights attorney in the city. Chicagoans are acutely aware of the torture scandal involving CPD detectives under the command of Jon Burge in the 1980s and ’90s, and the criminal charges against police officers who allegedly covered up for CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting of Laquan McDonald, Taylor said.
“You can go back to the killing of (Black Panther) Fred Hampton, to Burge to Laquan McDonald,” Taylor said. “I do think it’s cumulative, and there is a well-earned distrust of the police.”