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Chicago Police Department to change the way it investigates murders

The Police Executive Research Forum says the department’s Bureau of Detectives is understaffed, overtasked and often working without a uniform procedural edict.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference Wednesday at police headquarters.
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday announced plans to change the way murders are investigated.
Sam Charles/Sun-Times

The Chicago Police Department announced Wednesday it plans to make widespread changes to the way it handles murder investigations in light of a critical report from a police research organization.

The Police Executive Research Forum concluded the CPD’s Bureau of Detectives is understaffed, overtasked and often working without a uniform procedural edict.

“Many of the issues highlighted in this 116-page report have long been known to the department,” Supt. Eddie Johnson said. “Other findings show [that] a fresh set of eyes can bring things into light that have been overlooked previously.”

Among its recommendations, the group called on the CPD to:

  • Create a designated homicide unit
  • Increase the number of detective areas from three to five
  • Develop a consistent approach to investigating homicides.

The department said the creation of the homicide unit and the expansion of three areas to five were both on track to be completed next year. More detective in-service training and new detective bureau staffing models are also coming in 2020.

Since 2013, the detective bureau has been divided into three areas that span the city: Areas North, Central and South. Earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the reopening of two detective areas on the West Side. The department’s 22 patrol districts are organized in those same three areas.

The report also called for increased cooperation between detectives and prosecutors, as well as more thorough communication between detectives investigating murders and those tasked with investigating nonfatal shootings.

“We must continue to break down these silos to work together as a team, regardless of what bureau we work in, to predict, prevent and clear crimes,” Melissa Staples, chief of the Bureau of Detectives, said Wednesday. “The bottom line is this: Every homicide investigation is, and should be, important to all of us.”

The report, conducted at the behest of the CPD, found manpower and organization within the detective bureau were both lacking.

“The Bureau of Detectives is understaffed, and there are not enough sergeants to oversee individual teams of homicide detectives,” the report stated. “The CPD does not have a tracking mechanism to identify the number of cases assigned to each detective and who the lead investigator is on each case.”

The report noted that in Area South — which includes the Englewood, Calumet and Gresham districts, among the most violent in the city — there are no “designated homicide detectives on the midnight shift.”

“Despite being responsible for three districts with some of the highest number of homicides per district, Area South has the fewest number of detectives assigned specifically to investigate homicides,” the report found.

In the same vein, the report found varying workloads among detectives assigned to investigate violent crime. While the Department of Justice recommends a detective take the lead on no more than six new murder cases every year, some detectives in the CPD said they were assigned as the lead in as many as 11.

“Based on interviews, homicide cases are assigned in an inequitable manner, leading some detectives to carry heavier caseloads than others,” the report stated.

So far in 2019, the department’s murder clearance rate stands at just under 47%, according to figures distributed by the department Wednesday. That’s up from 40% in 2018, 33% in 2017 and 29% in 2016.

The clearance rate is calculated by comparing how many murders occur in a given year with how many murder cases are solved by detectives in that year, regardless of when the murder happened. For example, if 500 people were murdered in Chicago in 2020, and detectives solved 200 of them that same year, while also solving 100 murders from other years, the clearance rate would be 60%.

As of last week, the Chicago police had recorded 422 murders in the city in 2019. The report said the department has about 128 detectives throughout the city assigned to investigate homicides. Overall, the department — with a little more than 13,300 sworn members — has 1,127 officers assigned as detectives.

Johnson noted about 600 detectives have been added to the bureau in the past two years.

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, “homicide” and “murder” have different meanings. “Homicide” is the manner of death and it’s decided by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, though it is not always deemed a criminal act. For example, if a robbery victim shot and killed their attacker, that death would be ruled a homicide by the medical examiner but not classified as a murder by the CPD.