Kisha Nelson and her son, Zaire, were kindred spirits. Like Nelson, Zaire, 22, had a bright personality, enjoyed shopping, and loved spending time with family and friends. Before going out, he would always ask Nelson to pray with him. On March 16, those special moments ended in an instant.

As Nelson drove her 7-year-old daughter home from school, Zaire’s girlfriend FaceTimed her screaming. She told Nelson that someone had called and said Zaire was dead. Nelson dropped her daughter off with her grandma. She called the University of Chicago Medical Center, a nearby trauma center in Hyde Park, but she had to go there in person to get any information. “‘He came in as a gunshot victim,’” Nelson said the doctor told her. “‘He was dead on arrival.’”

“How many times had he been shot?” she asked.

“‘We stopped counting at 29,’” she said the doctor recounted. 

Hospital staff took her to see her son, but she could only see him from the doorway. They didn’t tell her what happened or who killed him. All they gave her was an envelope full of resources.

That day, Zaire became one of the 4,000 people who were fatally shot in Chicago over the last decade whose killers still haven’t been arrested, according to Chicago Police Department data. With many homicides left unsolved, thousands of families and friends are left looking over their shoulders in their neighborhoods. “It literally never gets easier,” Nelson said. “To not have any results, to not have any answers, to not know anything, it just hurts that much worse.”

Over the course of The Trace’s survivor storytelling project, an initiative that helped a group of survivors share their experiences, the lack of closure that comes from unsolved cases emerged as a key theme: seven out of the original eight participants didn’t know who shot them or their loved ones.

In response to their concerns, The Trace filed a Freedom of Information Act request with CPD and learned that police made arrests in 21 percent of fatal shootings between 2013 and mid-October this year. That number has remained almost the same over the past decade, dropping slightly from 19.4 percent in 2013 to 18.6 percent in 2022, which is significantly lower than the national average for overall homicide clearance rates. In 2022, the most recent year for which the FBI’s national data is available, about 45 percent of homicides across the country were cleared by arrest. Families and researchers said the police’s inability to solve gun crimes in Chicago has deteriorated the already broken trust between Black communities, whose cases are solved at a lower rate than those of their white counterparts, and the police. And the low rate of clearance by arrests, some say, perpetuates gun violence in the city.

The Trace requested comment in response to these findings from CPD in November and again in December; a spokesperson said that they didn’t know when someone would be available to comment.

Nelson’s son’s unsolved killing has diminished her sense of safety and made her suspicious of those around her. “Am I walking amongst my son’s killer?” she asked. That fear has led her to make sure to always have access to her oldest daughter’s location, and limiting where her 7-year-old can play. “I want her to be a kid and run up and down the street,” she said. “[But] you just never know what will happen.”

Kisha Nelson lost her son Zaire in March of 2023. Chicago police have yet to make an arrest in his case. (Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace)

And it’s often hard to make sense of the numbers. In 2022, Chicago Police reported clearing over half of their homicides. But that number counted cases that have been cleared by “exceptional means,” which includes when the suspected offender dies before being convicted or when prosecutors lack enough evidence to convict a suspect. And instead of actually reporting on the number of new cases that have been closed, Chicago’s annual clearance rate counts older cases that were solved that year. Legislators are working on a solution to address this issue. 

The Trace calculated arrests on cases by excluding those that were cleared by “exceptional means;” our year-by-year analysis included only cases that were solved in the same calendar year in which they were opened. To be sure, some cases opened in a given calendar year are closed after hundreds or thousands of days, and thus wouldn’t be captured by our calendar year analysis. Community members say that the timeliness of the resolution matters. Many, like Nelson, though, simply never find out who killed their loved ones.

Families want more out of the police

When Nelson saw her son at the hospital, she said the police in the room didn’t speak to her. She said they treated him like evidence, not a person. It wasn’t until the following day that she received a call from a detective. He told her that Zaire was killed in Avalon Park after he tried to run away from someone who shot at the car he was waiting in while his friend dropped off some clothes to be tailored. After hearing the commotion, the friend shot back at the assailant, saw Zaire lying on the ground, and left. 

“I couldn’t come and save him,” Nelson said. “When I think about him dying alone, it devastates me.”

She said the police assigned her a family liaison officer, who was helpful when the shooting first happened, but has become less present over time. Most of the communication between her and the police, she said, she initiates. She hasn’t received any answers.

Many families are going through similar situations, said Artinese Myrick, policy and organizing manager of Live Free Illinois, a faith-based organization that works with Black churches to stem community violence and mass incarceration. In her organization’s research on Chicago’s unsolved homicides, she said every person contacted said they do not receive updates on their cases if they don’t call themselves. “Many felt like they were a bother,” she said. “So they just stop calling.”

Jaree Noel lost her 16-year-old son, Rishawn Hendricks, last year when he was shot in a park near her then-home in North Lawndale. His case has also not been solved. Noel said that finding information about her son’s murder has become her responsibility. She’s heard rumors about Rishawn’s death from friends and neighbors, but nothing has been substantiated by the police. The lack of answers has put a strain on some of her relationships, because she sometimes feels like other people know more about her son’s death than she does.

“It’s not fair,” Noel said. “If you know information, let me go and tell the police and do the right thing.”

A mother and daughter post with a large framed photo of a young man.
Jaree Noel and her daughter Janyah pose with a photo of her late son Rishawn in his football uniform. Carolina Sanchez for The Trace

Noel said all she wants is some confidence that police are investigating the shooting. “It’s hurtful,” Noel said. “Are you actually doing something or not?” The only relief police have provided her, she said, was when they told her they would not give up on her case because he was a good child.

A decade worth of clearance data from the Chicago Police shows that 20 percent of Black fatal shootings resulted in arrests compared to almost 36 percent of white ones.

Families The Trace spoke to said they can see how the investigative process results in low arrest rates within Black communities. They said the bulk of the questions police asked them were about the character of their lost loved ones — and not about gathering evidence on who might have killed them. 

“There’s no secret that often around the dinner table or in the barber shop in the Black community of Chicago there are conversations about whether or not law enforcement is doing their job when it comes to solving cases,” said Democratic Illinois state Representative Kam Buckner, who is introducing two bills to address unsolved murders. 

Pamela Bosley, co-founder of Purpose Over Pain, an organization that helps survivors of gun violence, said police should spend more time gathering time-sensitive evidence, like surveillance footage, rather than questioning the victim. She said that after her 18-year-old son Terrell was killed in front of their church in 2006, police took two weeks to find out more about him, only to tell Bosley that they couldn’t find anything suspicious about him. His case remains unsolved.

Survivors don’t feel safe when cases go unsolved

Clearance rates are a common way to measure how effective police departments are in solving crime and making communities safer. But Chicago’s low clearance rates have a ripple effect, making people in communities disproportionately affected by gun violence feel even less safe.

Bosley said people will continue to shoot others if they think they won’t get caught. “I live in fear,” she said. “Who’s next?”

Often police departments cite a lack of cooperation by victims and witnesses for their inability to solve homicides. But families said that is not always true. “We’ve been getting information on our own cases, but detectives don’t follow through,” Bosley said. 

Even more, she said when police do try and talk to witnesses they have not been discreet about it, arriving at people’s homes. The whole neighborhood finds out quickly, Bosley added, and those people become terrified that they may face retaliation. Beyond fear from assailants, Nelson said, witnesses fear getting in trouble with the police. She said her son’s friend would not speak to police because he worried about getting in trouble for also firing a gun the day Zaire died.

The criminal legal system, Bosley said, does not currently protect witnesses and survivors. “Nobody is there to help us,” she said. “The only way we’re going to be helped is if we help ourselves.”

With assistance from Saint Sabina Catholic Church, Bosley offered a $5,000 reward for information about her son’s murder. Someone told her about a conversation they’d overheard: A young man lamented having killed a “church boy” over someone else making a joke that he was part of a gang when he clearly was not. Bosley gave this information to detectives, but to her knowledge, nothing ever happened. “Why should you talk and jeopardize your life if [police] aren’t going to do anything about it anyway,” she said.

In 2020, under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city said it would prioritize helping 15 communities in areas most affected by gun violence. In the past decade, Chicago Police data shows these communities continue to experience the highest number of unsolved cases.

“We see police presence in our neighborhoods,” Myrick said. “Yet the presence doesn’t make people feel more safe.” She said that adding more cops doesn’t help because it doesn’t equate to more cases being solved. 

While the Chicago Police Department’s budget continues to grow, reaching nearly $2 billion for 2024, the Bureau of Detectives make up only 4 percent of it, and they don’t exclusively solve homicides. Resources are skewed and not allocated in places where they might be the most effective, Myrick said.

Philip Cook, a professor emeritus of public policy and economics at Duke University, has been working with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab to examine clearance rates. Historically, he said, there was a sharp decline in CPD’s homicide clearance rates from 91 percent in 1965 to 57 percent in 1994, because police and prosecutors raised the threshold of evidence to arrest and convict people, leading to fewer false arrests and convictions. 

Although the rates are “more honest” now, Cook said, they are “distressingly low.” In his research, he found that detectives perceive prosecutors as an obstacle for raising their clearance rates because they feel they poorly communicate the threshold of evidence needed to successfully convict a suspect. “That leads to more private retaliation because the criminal justice system is not taking care of business.”

There needs to be a balance, Myrick said. “How are we making sure that cases are being solved and not just arbitrarily locking people away?”

Exploring possible solutions

Since 2019, in partnership with the University of Chicago, Chicago Police have been experimenting with Area Technology Centers (ATCs) to improve the use of video footage in solving crimes, and in turn, also raising the clearance rate. According to a study by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, the number of videos recovered from crime scenes has doubled with these centers. By collecting private video footage in a timely manner, the goal for ATCs — there are five across the city now — is to provide detectives with more evidence to arrest and convict suspects.

For Buckner, the state representative, this issue is personal. He has also had family members killed, and he hasn’t received closure on who shot them. Since his election in 2019, he has championed the idea of reopening unsolved cases. Back then, his proposal did not receive much support, but now, as he finalizes the Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act, he said, that’s changed.

The bill does three things: It allows families to petition law enforcement to reopen a case with new detectives after three years of inactivity; it requires police departments across the state to hire enough family liaisons based on their homicide caseloads; and it adds a data collection requirement through which Illinois police departments must all publicly report their clearance rates.

A Chicago Police Department spokesperson said that CPD enforces any existing law, and that the department does not offer opinions on proposed legislation.

Transparency is important, Buckner said, to help the public evaluate how effective police departments are at solving crimes. He said he plans to also introduce another bill in January focused on how clearance rates are calculated. Instead of including cases that were initiated in previous years but were later solved, they would use a system that accurately represents how many homicide cases are being solved every year. Cases cleared through “exceptional means” — which often doesn’t result in a killer being caught — would be separately reported.

He said there are some concerns over how much his proposed changes may cost. But for families who have received the devastating call about a loved one being killed, cost is not a barrier. “I really miss my baby,” said Nelson, who along with thousands of other families is still trying to figure out how to deal with her immense loss. She said her whole family is in therapy, learning how to cope with the hole Zaire’s death has left in their lives. 

Kisha Nelson’s son Zaire was 22 when he was killed. Portraits of him adorn the living room of Nelson’s home on Chicago’s South Side. Sebastián Hidalgo for The Trace

“Grief comes in waves,” she said. “One minute you’re doing kind of OK and then the next, you’re crying and sick to your stomach.” Constantly thinking of Zaire being gone is a mental drain, she said. “We’re in a club we didn’t ask to be in,” Nelson said. “It is a space that is constantly growing in Chicago.”

Data editor Olga Pierce contributed reporting.