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Noemi Martinez's brother, and later her son, were killed on Chicago’s streets. [Joshua Lott for The Trace]

FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence in Chicago

Most Shooters Go Free in Chicago’s Most Violent Neighborhoods — While Police Make Non-Stop Drug Arrests

An analysis of city data finds disparities in how the police pursue criminal offenses between white and non-white neighborhoods. “They’ll get a person for marijuana before they’ll get a person for murder.”

This story was published in partnership with WTTW, Chicago's PBS station.

Noemi Martinez said she watches as people who hang around the park and street corners in her neighborhood of East Garfield Park are arrested, then quickly released, for what must have been petty offenses. But the shootings continue unabated, making her and her family feel like prisoners inside their home.

When groups of people start to congregate outside, Martinez tells her family, including her 6-year-old grandson, to stay out of the living room and away from the windows. Martinez’s brother, and later her son, were killed on Chicago’s streets. She said the grief is like a “bad spirit” that has followed her family, and she worries for her daughters and grandsons.

“The drug arrests, they’re being released. They’re being bonded out. What are they doing about the people with the gun cases?” Martinez asked. “How do we protect ourselves?”

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t make many arrests for the most serious violent crimes, especially in the 11th District, where she lives. 

Of the 48 fatal shootings that occurred in the district during the first eight months of this year, only one — the February killing of a 22-year-old man during a robbery — is listed in the police database as “cleared by arrest.” The police didn’t do much better with shootings that leave survivors: Just 7 of 160 nonfatal shootings in the district were cleared by arrest.

At the same time, arrests for less serious crimes, such as drug buying or possession, were very common. In fact, during the same eight months, more than a third of the arrests in the district were of people who allegedly bought or possessed drugs.

A map comparing shootings and drug arrests in Chicago's 11th police district.

This juxtaposition of enforcing more minor crimes, while the most serious ones go unpunished, is felt most distinctly in places like the 11th District, where most of the residents are black or Latino. The district encompasses the West Side neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park, and East Garfield Park. It’s one of the places in Chicago where the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said, in the report summarizing its 2016 investigation into allegations of widespread brutality, that people “experience policing in a fundamentally different way” than people living in the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods. 

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FIRSTHAND: Gun Violence in Chicago

The Trace and WTTW explore the perspectives of people whose lives have been affected by gun violence in Chicago.

Gun violence is a serious problem in some of these neighborhoods. But instead of sending more beat officers to patrol the streets, and more detectives to catch the perpetrators of shootings, the DOJ found the Chicago Police Department (CPD) acted more like an “occupying force,” saturating these neighborhoods with officers wearing black shirts and combat boots, patrolling the streets in unmarked vehicles. One technique deployed by the department, called “jump out,” involved rapidly driving toward a street corner and jumping out, guns drawn. If anyone fled, officers would give chase. This frequently resulted in “some of the most problematic shootings,” of civilians by police, the DOJ found. Officers often refused to release the people they had detained, even if they were only stopped for minor traffic offenses, unless they gave information about gang activity, drug activity, or the location of weapons. “When individuals do not talk, officers will drop them off in dangerous areas or gang territories,” the report said.

Christy Lopez was a deputy chief at the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and oversaw the investigation. She said they talked with roughly a thousand residents. Lopez noted that investigators heard just as many complaints that police didn’t put in enough effort to solve violent crimes as they did complaints about police brutality.

The DOJ didn’t try to determine if the complaints were true, Lopez said. “It was just outside of our scope.” The report concluded that the perceived lack of investigatory effort creates the impression that the CPD “does not genuinely care about the murders of young black men and women.”

Chicago Police have failed to make an arrest in 85 percent of the violent crimes committed with firearms that have taken place in the city since 2001: Nearly 42,000 shootings that resulted in an injury or fatality, and another 134,000 rapes, robberies, and assaults at gunpoint, The Trace, in partnership with WTTW, has found in an analysis of police data from January 1, 2001 through August 31, 2019.

During the same nearly 20-year period, police data shows 610,000 arrests for charges of possessing or purchasing marijuana and other illegal drugs. That amounts to one-third of all arrests. 

In August 2015, the CPD agreed to allow an outside monitor to oversee reforms as part of a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union over allegations that police were targeting people for street stops based on skin color. A few months later, the DOJ initiated its own investigation of the agency. The CPD has since promised to make sweeping changes to the way it polices black and Latino communities. 

Our analysis has found that an over-policing/under-policing dynamic still exists in many of those communities. Crime data since 2016 shows the following: 

  • Even as the city has dramatically scaled back its enforcement of laws against drug possession and use, these charges remain the most frequent cause for arrest in a handful of West Side districts that are predominantly black and Latino.
  • The more black and Latino the district, the higher the share of all arrests for offenses related to narcotics, prostitution, underage drinking, and gambling, which all tend to result from “proactive policing” rather than responding to a crime report.
  • In the police districts that are mostly white, 40 percent of all arrests were for what the federal government deems the most “serious” violent and property offenses. By contrast, in police districts that are mostly black and Latino, only 17 percent of all arrests were for violent and property offenses.

The Chicago Police Department doesn’t do a great job of bringing shooters to justice anywhere in the city. But this mostly affects black and Latino people, who are more likely to live in areas with high rates of gun violence, and who comprise roughly 90 percent of shooting victims. “If those weren’t the victims,” Lopez said, “maybe those types of cases would be would be investigated quite differently, and we would have very different arrest rates.”

On October 30, following the release of a study that detailed major deficiencies in homicide investigations, city officials announced far-reaching reforms of the CPD’s detective units. “No one here believes that we are doing enough to solve homicides in our city,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “It’s not just a numbers game. It says how are we doing? How are we respecting what’s happening to victims and witnesses out there in the street? What are we doing to make sure that we’re bringing offenders to justice?” 

Angela McCray lost two of her children to gun violence. Her eldest son, Antwan McCray, was killed in an August 2015 robbery. Her youngest, Marvin Howard, Jr., was shot two years later in what he said was an ambush by people he knew.

Both of McCray’s sons spent several weeks in the hospital after they were shot, and for a short time, she said it seemed like they might pull through. Both times, she said she called the detectives on the case to notify them that her sons recognized their shooters and were willing to be interviewed. But both times, she said, the detectives never came. 

“No one ever came to talk to me, none of that,” McCray told The Trace. “Every time I call, I don’t get an answer. Or they tell me nothing, or they’re going to look at it, and they’re going to read the report and call me back.”

Antwan McCray’s death is among 84 open shootings that happened in the 22nd District in 2015. Howard’s death is among 152 open shootings that happened in the 5th District in 2017. In the years since, police have made hundreds of drug arrests in each district, which are both on the South Side. 

Police often complain that it’s harder for them to get witnesses to come forward in black neighborhoods. But people living in those neighborhoods often say it’s because they don’t believe the police can protect them from retaliation. “The community is afraid to step up,” said Martinez, who previously worked with family members of homicide victims as a case worker for the nonprofit Chicago Survivors. “Witnesses disappear. They move out. They’re afraid to come forward and that’s exactly what’s going on. They’re being taunted. They’re being threatened.”

In McCray’s case, she said that shortly after her son Marvin died in 2017, she started getting threats of retaliation if she didn’t keep quiet.  Each time, she called 911, and each time, the police failed to show up.

“They do more arresting, you know, jumping on black kids, jumping on people period — women, you know,” McCray said. “They’ll get a person for marijuana before they’ll get a person for murder.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the Chicago Police. I don’t. Because they just let go on some issues, and they’re not doing their job as police officers.” 

The CPD and the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications denied The Trace’s requests for records of the detective’s activity logs and of McCray’s 911 calls. Appeals were unsuccessful. The Chicago Police did not respond to The Trace’s questions about McCray’s allegations.

Year after year, as the Chicago Police failed to make arrests in an increasing share of shootings, the number of sworn officers assigned to the detective areas shrank: from around 1,210 sworn officers in 2005 to 910 in 2016, according to The Trace’s analysis of CPD staff data.

Over the same period, the number of sworn officers assigned to gang units swelled from about 80 to 440, even as the department underwent massive restructuring in 2012 to cut costs. The narcotics units remained relatively constant at approximately 250 officers. 

The department started increasing its detective ranks in 2017, and currently about 1,060 sworn officers are assigned to the detective areas. (More recent statistics for gang and narcotics units are not available because CPD withheld undercover officers from the current assignment data it provided to The Trace.)

“Shootings aren’t solved by gang teams,” said Wesley Skogan, a professor at Chicago’s Northwestern University who has studied the CPD since the 1990s. “Gang teams are more part of general deterrence and hassling and keeping the numbers up,” he said. “They’re riding around in their brown Fords looking for suspicious groups of young males and throwing them against the fence to see if they can find a gun or contraband. They’re not responding to incidents.” 

The CPD has been dogged by allegations that detectives fail to perform even basic investigative steps necessary to solve violent cases. Yet there hasn’t been a formal inquiry to determine if complaints like McCray’s are accurate, and if the issue is widespread throughout the detective divisions. 

The Justice Department’s report cited numerous similar allegations. But despite unfettered access to CPD records, investigators never looked into them, Lopez and two other former top officials told The Trace.

Faced with mounting criticism for its poor performance clearing murder cases, the CPD created a task force to overhaul its detective division. Deputy Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan, who heads the task force, told The Trace that he wasn’t aware of any internal inquiry into the allegations. However, the department hired a consulting firm, the Police Executive Research Forum, to analyze its homicide unit and recommend improvements. The study was funded by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The consulting firm’s report, released on October 30, paints a dire picture: It often takes a year or longer to get DNA results back from the state lab. Investigators share computers and vehicles. Only recently did they get cell phones to replace a single office line for each detective area. When PERF’s analysts looked through a handful of homicide case files, they found limited evidence of follow-up. “Many leads were unaddressed, misfiled, or not documented within the file,” the report said. 

To save money, in 2012, the city consolidated its detective jurisdictions from five to three — Areas North, Central, and South. Area South, where nearly 9 out of 10 residents are black or Latino, is the only area without any designated homicide detectives on the midnight shift, when most shootings occur, the report said. 

The Trace found that the arrest rate for fatal shootings that took place in what is now Area South during the midnight shift, which starts at 10 p.m., was down from 64 percent in 2001 to 8 percent in 2018. The rate for the other two areas has declined, but not as much: In 2018, it was 30 percent in Area North, and 27 percent in Area Central.

In a news conference, Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson acknowledged that many of the issues highlighted in PERF’s 116-page report “have long been known to the department,” but said others were new.

The city has already started implementing several of PERF’s recommendations: Three “technology hubs” were opened to help gather and process video in murder cases, 302 detectives have been added since January 2017, and the two detective areas that were closed are slated to reopen in 2020. City officials announced in October that the CPD would adopt the remaining recommendations. 

But the report is focused on homicides. Most victims of gun violence survive. Deenihan said it’s “not realistic” that CPD would have enough detectives to thoroughly investigate each shooting.

“We have thousands of shootings per year, unfortunately, and we have a limited number of what I would call ‘shooting team’ detectives, so their caseloads are heavy. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t go out and try to do the job to the best of their ability,” Deenihan said.

 “Would I like to have hundreds more detectives?” Deenihan said. “Of course, I would.”

Noemi Martinez said she believes her mother died of grief over her brother Julian Collazo’s murder. Grief over the murder of her own son, Andres Rivera, Jr., in 2004 still comes in waves. But in one way, she was fortunate: At least she knows who did it. The man who committed the shooting, which he says was accidental, turned himself in and served time.

Angela McCray said her anger over the injustice can be so excruciating that she can barely stand to be in her own skin.

It’s not just her son’s killers that she’s angry with. It’s the Chicago Police, for letting them walk free.

“It affects me a lot,” she said. “I get angry and get myself upset. My blood pressure goes up so high, I have to go to the hospital.”

“It’s just sad,” she said. “My kids’ murderers are still scot-free. If they would’ve just done their job as police officers and talked to my kids when they were here, my cases would be solved.”

The Trace’s data editor, Daniel Nass, contributed to the analysis.

The data, methodology, and code for this analysis can be found on The Trace’s GitHub page.