07 Apr 14
The city’s drop in crime has been nothing short of miraculous. Here’s what’s behind the unbelievable numbers.
It was a balmy afternoon last July when the call came in: Dead body found inside empty warehouse on the West Side.
Chicago police officers drove through an industrial stretch of the hardscrabble Austin neighborhood and pulled up to the 4600 block of West Arthington Street. The warehouse in question was an unremarkable-looking red-brick single-story building with a tall barbed-wire fence. Vacant for six years, it had been visited that day by its owner and a real-estate agent—the person who had called 911.
The place lacked electricity, so crime scene technicians set up generators and portable lights. The power flickered on to reveal a grisly sight. In a small office, on soggy carpeting covered in broken ceiling tiles, lay a naked, lifeless woman. She had long red-streaked black hair and purple glitter nail polish on her left toenails (her right ones were gone), but beyond that it was hard to discern much. Her face and body were bloated and badly decomposed, her hands ash colored. Maggots feasted on her flesh.
At the woman’s feet, detectives found a curled strand of telephone wire. Draped over her right hand was a different kind of wire: thin and brown. The same brown wire was wrapped around each armrest of a wooden chair next to her.
The following day, July 24, a pathologist in the Cook County medical examiner’s office noticed something else that had been obscured by rotting skin: a thin gag tied around the corpse’s mouth.
Thanks to some still-visible tattoos, detectives soon identified this unfortunate woman: Tiara Groves, a 20-year-old from Austin. She was last seen walking alone in the wee hours of Sunday, July 14, near a liquor store two miles from the warehouse. At least eight witnesses who saw her that night told police a similar story: She appeared drunk and was upset—one man said that she was crying so hard she couldn’t catch her breath—but refused offers of help. A man who talked to her outside the liquor store said that Groves warned him, excitedly and incoherently, that he should stay away from her or else somebody (she didn’t say who) would kill him too.
Toxicology tests showed she had heroin and alcohol in her system, but not enough to kill her. All signs pointed to foul play. According to the young woman’s mother, who had filed a missing-person report, the police had no doubt. “When this detective came to my house, he said, ‘We found your daughter. . . . Your daughter has been murdered,’ ” Alice Groves recalls. “He told me they’re going to get the one that did it.”
On October 28, a pathologist ruled the death of Tiara Groves a homicide by “unspecified means.” This rare ruling means yes, somebody had killed Groves, but the pathologist couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of death.
Given the finding of homicide—and the corroborating evidence at the crime scene—the Chicago Police Department should have counted Groves’s death as a murder. And it did. Until December 18. On that day, the police report indicates, a lieutenant overseeing the Groves case reclassified the homicide investigation as a noncriminal death investigation. In his writeup, he cited the medical examiner’s “inability to determine a cause of death.”
That lieutenant was Denis Walsh—the same cop who had played a crucial role in the alleged cover-up in the 2004 killing of David Koschman, the 21-year-old who died after being punched by a nephew of former mayor Richard M. Daley. Walsh allegedly took the Koschman file home. For years, police officials said that it was lost. After the Sun-Times reported it missing, the file mysteriously reappeared.
But back to Tiara Groves. With the stroke of a computer key, she was airbrushed out of Chicago’s homicide statistics.
The change stunned officers. Current and former veteran detectives who reviewed the Groves case at Chicago’s request were just as incredulous. Says a retired high-level detective, “How can you be tied to a chair and gagged, with no clothes on, and that’s a [noncriminal] death investigation?” (He, like most of the nearly 40 police sources interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name, citing fears of disciplinary action or other retribution.)
Was it just a coincidence, some wondered, that the reclassification occurred less than two weeks before the end of the year, when the city of Chicago’s final homicide numbers for 2013 would be tallied? “They essentially wiped away one of the murders in the city, which is crazy,” says a police insider. “But that’s the kind of shit that’s going on.”
For the case of Tiara Groves is not an isolated one. Chicago conducted a 12-month examination of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics going back several years, poring through public and internal police records and interviewing crime victims, criminologists, and police sources of various ranks. We identified 10 people, including Groves, who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons.
This troubling practice goes far beyond murders, documents and interviews reveal. Chicago found dozens of other crimes, including serious felonies such as robberies, burglaries, and assaults, that were misclassified, downgraded to wrist-slap offenses, or made to vanish altogether. (We’ll examine those next month in part 2 of this special report.)
Many officers of different ranks and from different parts of the city recounted instances in which they were asked or pressured by their superiors to reclassify their incident reports or in which their reports were changed by some invisible hand. One detective refers to the “magic ink”: the power to make a case disappear. Says another: “The rank and file don’t agree with what’s going on. The powers that be are making the changes.”
Granted, a few dozen crimes constitute a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 reported in Chicago last year. But sources describe a practice that has become widespread at the same time that top police brass have become fixated on demonstrating improvement in Chicago’s woeful crime statistics.
And has there ever been improvement. Aside from homicides, which soared in 2012, the drop in crime since Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy arrived in May 2011 is unprecedented—and, some of his detractors say, unbelievable. Crime hasn’t just fallen, it has freefallen: across the city and across all major categories.
Take “index crimes”: the eight violent and property crimes that virtually all U.S. cities supply to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its Uniform Crime Report. According to police figures, the number of these crimes plunged by 56 percent citywide from 2010 to 2013—an average of nearly 19 percent per year—a reduction that borders on the miraculous. To put these numbers in perspective: From 1993, when index crimes peaked, to 2010, the last full year under McCarthy’s predecessor, Jody Weis, the average annual decline was less than 4 percent.
This dramatic crime reduction has been happening even as the department has been bleeding officers. (A recent Tribune analysis listed 7,078 beat cops on the streets, 10 percent fewer than in 2011.) Given these facts, the crime reduction “makes no sense,” says one veteran sergeant. “And it makes absolutely no sense that people believe it. Yet people believe it.”
The city’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, may not. Chicago has learned that his office has questioned the accuracy of the police department’s crime statistics. A spokeswoman confirmed that the office recently finalized an audit of the police department’s 2012 crime data—though only for assault-related crimes so far—“to determine if CPD accurately classified [these categories of] crimes under its written guidelines and if it reported related crime statistics correctly.” (The audit found, among other things, that the department undercounted aggravated assaults and batteries by more than 24 percent, based on the sample cases reviewed.)
Meanwhile, the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil pols on Chicago’s City Council have mostly accepted the police department’s crime numbers at face value. So have most in the media. You can hardly turn on the news without hearing McCarthy or Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaiming unquestioned: Murders down 18 percent in 2013! Overall crime down 23 percent! Twelve thousand fewer crime victims! “These days, everything is about media and public opinion,” says one longtime officer. “If a number makes people feel safe, then why not give it to them?”
If you want proof of the police department’s obsession with crime statistics, look no further than the last few days of 2012. On the night of December 27, a 40-year-old alleged gang member named Nathaniel Jackson was shot in the head and killed in Austin. The next morning, newscasters proclaimed that Chicago’s murder toll for the year had hit 500—a grim milestone last reached in 2008, during the Great Recession.
By lunchtime, the police department’s spinmeisters at 35th and Michigan had challenged the reports. The actual total, they said, was 499. A murder case earlier in the year had just been reclassified as a death investigation.
Critics howled. The bloggers behind Second City Cop declared: “It’s a miracle! The dead have risen!!!”
By late afternoon, police had backed down; Jackson was, indeed, the 500th homicide of 2012. Chicago would end the year with 507 recorded murders, more than in any other city in the nation.
Many inside the police force, as well as many outside criminologists, saw the spike in violence in 2012 as a statistical anomaly. Crime tends to go in cycles, they pointed out; the city topped 500 killings not only in 2008 but also in 2003, 2002, and 2001, to name a few.
Still, it looked bad for Mayor Emanuel. His disapproval rating in the polls was rising sharply, particularly among black voters. Behind closed doors, according to a City Hall insider, Emanuel told his police chief that the department had better not allow a repeat performance of 2012 or McCarthy’s days in Chicago would be numbered. (Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to comment for this article.)
McCarthy called 2012’s homicide total a “tragic number” and vowed that things would be different in 2013. The mindset inside police headquarters, recalls one officer: “Whatever you gotta do, this can’t happen again.”
The chief felt even more pressure than his rank and file may have realized. For the former New Yorker to prove that his policing strategies worked in Chicago, he would need to keep the number of murders not just below 2012’s total but also below 2011’s: 435.
To do so, McCarthy leaned even more heavily on a tool that has proved wildly successful in his hometown: CompStat. Borrowing performance-management principles from the business world, CompStat collects, analyzes, and maps a city’s crime data in real time. These statistics help police track trouble spots more accurately and pinpoint where officers are needed most. The department’s number crunchers can slice and dice the stats all sorts of ways, spitting out reports showing percentage changes in various crimes by neighborhood over different time frames, for example: month to month, week to week—heck, hour to hour.
Armed with those statistics, the police brass turn up the pressure in weekly meetings, grilling field commanders about crime in their areas. The statistics are widely said to make or break a career. “The only evaluation is the numbers,” says a veteran sergeant. “God forbid your crime is up. If you have a 20 percent reduction this month, you’d better have a 21 percent reduction the next month.”
The homicide numbers are especially important, says one cop: “You should see these supervisors, like cats in a room filled with rocking chairs, afraid to classify a murder because of all the screaming they will hear downtown.”
If the numbers are bad, the district commanders and officers get reamed out by McCarthy and the other bosses at headquarters. These targets frequently leave the meetings seething. Even McCarthy concedes that such meetings can get ugly. “When I was a commander in New York, it was full contact,” he told Chicago in 2012. “And if you weren’t careful, you could lose an eye.”
Unfortunately for all concerned, January 2013 could not have started out worse. Five people were murdered in Chicago on New Year’s Day. The number hit 17 by the end of the first full week. “This is too much,” Al Wysinger, the police department’s first deputy superintendent, told the crowd in the January 17 CompStat meeting, according to a memo summarizing it. “Last October and November, I kept saying we have to start 2013 off on the right foot. Wrong foot! We can’t reiterate this much clearer.”
As the month wore on, the death toll kept rising. Among the victims were headline grabbers Ronnie Chambers, 33, the last of his mother’s four children to die from gun violence, and Hadiya Pendleton, 15, the honor student who was shot in a park about a mile from President Obama’s house.
And then there was 20-something Tiffany Jones from the South Side. (To protect the identity of her family, we have given her a pseudonym.)
In January, Jones got into an argument with a male relative that turned into a “serious physical fight,” according to the police report. Her sister later told police that she saw the enraged man punch Jones in the head. Police and paramedics arrived to find Jones’s siblings struggling to keep him out of the family’s apartment.
Inside, Jones was sitting on the couch, gasping for breath. When officers asked her if she wanted to press battery charges, she could only nod yes, the police report shows. She tried to stand but collapsed to the floor, no longer breathing. Rushed to the hospital, Jones was soon pronounced dead.
The attending doctor noted head trauma and bleeding behind Jones’s left eye. Seeing fresh bruises on her left cheek, left eye, and both arms, the investigating officers were leaning toward recommending a first-degree murder charge against the male relative, according to the police report. First-degree murder—willfully killing or committing an act that creates a “strong probability of death or great bodily harm”—carries more severe penalties than any other homicide charge.
The next day, however, a pathologist with the Cook County medical examiner’s office came to the surprising conclusion that Jones had died from a blood clot that was unrelated to the fight. “Because of the embolism,” the pathologist noted to detectives, according to the police report, Jones “would have died ‘from just walking down the street.’ ”
Disagreements between police and medical examiners are rare but not unheard of. When they do occur, the rule for police is clear. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook expressly states that a police department’s classification of a homicide should be based solely on a police investigation, not on the determination of a medical examiner or prosecutor’s office.
But the officers did not ask for a lesser homicide charge, such as involuntary manslaughter, against Jones’s relative. Nor did they even charge him with battery. The reason, the report states: “the lack of any complaining victim or witness to the domestic battery incident.” Never mind that a dead victim cannot complain.
Police sent the man on his way. And that was that. Search for this case in the police department’s public database of 2013 crimes and you won’t find it. It’s as if it never happened.
By the end of January, 44 people had been murdered in Chicago, more than in any first month since 2002. That big number—and the national attention brought by Pendleton’s killing—set off more public furor about the inability of McCarthy and Emanuel to stem the bloodshed. A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police said that their strategies had “failed miserably.”
Even aldermen who had heaped praise on McCarthy in the past started to criticize. “If this isn’t dealt with soon,” warned the 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins, chairman of the City Council’s black caucus, “the mayor is gonna be forced to do something about McCarthy, or this could potentially become his snow issue.” It was a reference to Mayor Michael Bilandic’s mishandling of the Blizzard of ’79, one of the most infamous career killers in Chicago political history.
After January 2013, the number of homicides in Chicago began falling dramatically. February ended with just 14. March ended with 17. That compares with 29 and 52, respectively, in 2012.
Emanuel and McCarthy were giddy. The policing changes they had made in the past three months had worked! Those changes included, a day after Pendleton’s death, moving 200 officers from desks to the streets and bringing back the roving units Emanuel and McCarthy had disbanded when they first took over. What’s more, in February, McCarthy started sending officers into 20 “impact zones” deemed the most dangerous in the city. In March, some 400 cops began patrolling these zones daily, racking up about $1 million in overtime per week.
McCarthy was frustrated that the media was giving most of the credit for the murder reduction to the cold weather rather than to his policing strategies. The city called a news conference. “We are clearly having an impact on the homicides,” Emanuel told reporters on April 1. He declared that the number of murders in the first quarter of 2013 was lower than in any other first quarter in the past 50 years.
The mayor didn’t mention that the department’s own records show that Chicago had the exact same number of homicides in the first three months of 2009 as it did in the first three months of 2013. Nor did he remind his audience that Chicago’s population has shrunk by nearly 1 million people since 1960. Look at murder rates—homicides per 100,000 people—and you get 15 today. That rate is one-third higher than in 1960. And it’s nearly four times New York City’s current rate.
April Fool’s Day marked the unofficial start of a new city tactic: inundate the public with crime-decline statistics, carefully choosing time periods that demonstrated the biggest possible drops from the same period in 2012 or beyond, whatever sounded best. “Between the time of 8:36 am 32 seconds and 8:39 am 15 seconds . . . crime went down an amazing 89%!!! compared to the same time last year,” one wag posted on Second City Cop.
Turns out the low March homicide numbers were made possible in part by curious categorizations of two more deaths. One is the case of Maurice Harris.
On March 15, the 57-year-old Harris—an older man playing a young man’s game—teamed up with a crew selling heroin near the corner of Cicero and Van Buren on the West Side. It was a sliver of turf that belonged to a street gang, the Undertaker Vice Lords.
Midmorning, Harris saw about five men walking up the block. His crew scattered. Harris got a tap on the shoulder, then a punch in the face, according to the police report. Moments later, he was on the sidewalk, taking repeated punches and kicks and blows to the head with a metal pipe. When the beatdown finally ended, Harris told a witness that he couldn’t feel his legs.
He was rushed to Loretto Hospital, then transferred to two other hospitals—Mount Sinai and Rush—as his condition worsened. On March 19, Harris began slurring his words, and his arms went numb. Doctors put in a breathing tube; they also diagnosed a spinal cord injury. On March 21, six days after the beating, Harris died.
Police recorded the Maurice Harris case as a battery, which is indisputably true. But not as a homicide.
At first, the Cook County medical examiner’s office said that an autopsy was inconclusive. The pathologist, according to the police report, “deferred the cause and manner of death pending further studies.”
Eight months later, on November 13, the same pathologist made a final ruling—a head scratcher to every police source we spoke to who reviewed the case. Harris, the doctor determined, died from a pulmonary embolism, diabetes, and drug abuse. The police report summarized the pathologist’s findings: “The victim showed no significant evidence of injuries sustained from the battery [and] that in no way did it appear that the battery contributed to the cause of his death and therefore ruled his death as natural.”
That’s all detectives needed to close their death investigation. But they still had to wrap up the battery case. They declared it solved, reporting that they knew what had happened, knew who beat up Harris, and had enough evidence to “support an arrest, charge, and [turn] over to the court for prosecution.” But because the victim was dead and “there is no complaining witness to aid in the prosecution,” there was no reason to move forward. Harris’s attackers were therefore never apprehended.
On March 28, three weeks after Chicago filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Cook County medical examiner’s office about the case of Maurice Harris, the office changed its death ruling from “natural” to “undetermined.” The ruling cited new information from medical records that, a spokesman for the medical examiner says, the office had requested “some time ago” but had only just received.
The current chief medical examiner, Stephen Cina, was appointed by Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle in July 2012. That was shortly after previous examiner Nancy Jones resigned following an avalanche of negative publicity about bodies stacking up at the city morgue.
It was also a few months after Preckwinkle and the county’s board of commissioners had passed ordinances giving themselves more power over the office—for example, imposing a five-year term limit and making it easier to fire the medical examiner by a simple majority vote. Previously, the medical examiner’s tenure could last a lifetime: a Supreme Court–like term meant to insulate the position from the political and police pressures so notorious in “Crook County.”
As the former deputy medical examiner of Broward County in famously corrupt South Florida, Cina was plenty used to politics. “If I get an inordinate amount of pressure, I don’t intend to buckle or break under it,” he vowed to the Sun-Times.
Cina says he has made numerous changes to the office to bring it more in line with national standards. “We’ve rewritten every standard operating procedure in the place,” he says. He also says that he has “tweaked” how his office assigns the cause and manner of a death. For example, he added the ruling “homicide by unspecified means”—the ruling that police used to shut down the Tiara Groves homicide investigation. “Some people may not be familiar with the term, but it’s an acceptable cause of death,” Cina insists.
Might changes under Cina help explain the perplexing findings in other 2013 cases, such as those of Maurice Harris and Tiffany Jones? There is no evidence that the medical examiner’s office intentionally issued misleading or inaccurate rulings to help the city keep its homicide count down. “I’ve never felt pressure one way or another to make my ruling,” Cina says. “I’m pro–scientific truth more than anything.”
But knowledgeable sources who reviewed these cases for Chicago say that the way the medical examiner’s rulings were worded gave police the wiggle room they needed to avoid “taking a hit” on the statistics, as one detective put it. Says a source who used to work at the medical examiner’s office: “I can see the powers that be in the police department saying, ‘Here’s our out.’ ”
On March 17, two days after Maurice Harris got pummeled, police were called to the top floor of a red-brick three-flat in Pilsen. A man who had just returned home from a trip smelled a “foul odor” coming from a plastic air mattress in the bedroom of a roommate he hadn’t seen in weeks. When he started pulling debris from the mattress, he saw a grotesquely decomposed human head. The rest of the body was cocooned in garbage.
Investigators opened the bag to find that the corpse was a woman’s, wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. She was wearing turquoise jogging pants, a black camisole, a hoodie, and boots. Police identified her as Michelle Manalansan, 29, a student at Harold Washington College. She had last been seen at her downtown apartment on February 9. The police report adds that investigators were told by witnesses that the absent roommate “was the last person seen with [Michelle].”
The roommate, police learned, was wanted by the Cook County sheriff for a probation violation. They also learned that a relative had bought him a ticket to Los Angeles on a train that left Chicago six days after Manalansan disappeared.
Despite the circumstances, police classified the case as a noncriminal death investigation. A detective soon made it an even lower priority: He suspended the case until the roommate could be “located and interviewed.”
Manalansan’s death certificate on file with the Cook County clerk’s office says that she died by homicide—specifically, blunt head and neck trauma. But at presstime, her case had still not been classified as criminal. The roommate was still at large.
With a hint of disgust, one retired veteran detective who reviewed the cases of Michelle Manalansan, Maurice Harris, Tiffany Jones, and Tiara Groves for Chicago called all four “counters.” That is, cases that he believes the police should have counted as homicides. “I’m not surprised that these cases have not come to light, based on who the victims are,” he says. “However, it is a travesty that the cases are not being investigated.” (While all cases are technically ongoing until they are closed, detectives say that death investigations are much lower priorities than homicide investigations.)
As the spring of 2013 wore on, Mother Nature delivered a blessing: a deluge. That April would be the wettest on record and was relatively quiet; bad weather tends to keep criminals off the streets.
Murders began ticking up again in May. And June ended with 45, only three below 2012’s total. Still, when the Chicago Police Department added up the homicides for the first half of the year, they got 184—a whopping 30 percent fewer than the year-ago period. “Fewer murders than in any year since 1965,” McCarthy told reporters.
One factor, as the Tribune first noted, was that the department excluded from the count three homicides that occurred within city limits but on expressways patrolled by state police. (There would be another expressway homicide before the end of the year.) Before McCarthy’s arrival, the department did not exclude such crimes from its homicide total, according to longtime police sources.
The second half of the year, of course, includes the dog days of summer, the high-crime period that really sends sweat down the backs of police leaders. And July exploded. Over the long Independence Day weekend alone, 13 people were killed and more than 70 were shot in Chicago. The ensuing days weren’t much better. “It’s mayhem,” declared one state lawmaker, Monique Davis, of the South Side. She called on Governor Pat Quinn to send the Illinois National Guard and the state police to Chicago to help keep the peace. By month’s end, the murder count had hit 53, versus 50 in July 2012.
‘We are not going to rest until people feel the reality of these numbers.’
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a December 15 press conference, on Chicago’s 2013 violence reduction
In August—typically Chicago’s hottest month—the stress inside Chicago Police Department headquarters was palpable. That’s when several police insiders first told Chicago about what they called “the panel.”
Said to be made up of a small group of very high-level officers, the panel allegedly began scrutinizing death cases in which the victims didn’t die immediately or where the circumstances that led to the deaths couldn’t be immediately determined, sources say. Panel members were looking for anything that could be delayed, keeping it off the books for a week, a month, maybe a year. “Whatever the case may be, it had to wait until it came back from the panel,” says a well-placed police insider. “All this was to hide the murder numbers, that’s all they are doing.” (How many cases did get delayed, if any, is unknown.)
By the end of August the department had counted 286 homicides since January—80 fewer than in 2012.
With the summer all but behind them, the police brass pretty much knew that, barring some extraordinary crime wave, the year’s homicide count would not eclipse 2012’s. But 2013’s total this far was still eight more than recorded during the same period in 2011. For McCarthy, beating the 2011 number was starting to look like an elusive goal.
On September 19, two gun-toting gangbangers opened fire on a crowded pickup basketball game in Cornell Park, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. One of them used an AK-47. When the bullets stopped flying, 13 people had been wounded, including a three-year-old boy. But no one died. A “miracle,” McCarthy said. (In the stats book, the shootings counted as only one “shooting incident” in CompStat. Read more about that in part 2 of this story.)
Two days after gunfire lit up Cornell Park, an extra-alarm fire erupted in a three-story apartment building at 112th Street and King Drive, in the Roseland neighborhood. When firefighters arrived just before 2 a.m., much of the building and the stairwell was engulfed in flames.
Inside, they found Millicent Brown-Johnson, 28, in a purple nightgown, her body covered in black soot, unconscious on the floor of her third-floor apartment. Her eight-year-old son, Jovan Perkins, was passed out in the stairwell, ravaged by second- and third-degree burns, according to the police report.
Ambulances rushed them to the hospital. Brown-Johnson, who had been working at the American Girl Place store on Michigan Avenue as she pursued a degree in physical therapy, did not survive. Perkins, a second grader, died later that night.
Firefighters and police immediately determined the fire to be suspicious. The next day they found a plastic gas container inside a garbage can in Palmer Park, across the street from the charred building.
On September 28, the medical examiner’s office ruled that both mother and son had died of smoke inhalation and that, based on the police and fire department investigations, their deaths were homicides.
However, the case was classified as a death investigation, not a murder investigation, and the police did not include the two deaths in their year-end homicide count. Nor have police caught the arsonist. “How will I ever get justice if the case is not even categorized the right way?” asks Austin Perkins, the boy’s father, a truck driver from Hammond, Indiana.
Excluding Brown-Johnson and Perkins from Chicago’s homicide statistics helped the September numbers clock in at 42 rather than 44. At this point, the 2011 numbers were actually beginning to look beatable. Through the first nine months of 2013, the department’s murder tally was 322, versus 317 for the same period two years before.
The breakthrough happened in October. On the last day of the month, the 2013 year-to-date total was 352, versus 353 in 2011, by the department’s count. McCarthy had edged out 2011 by just one number.
October 31 also marked Superintendent McCarthy’s annual budget hearing before the Chicago City Council. He positioned himself in front of three giant charts: a set of blue bars illustrating how murders had dropped 20 percent over the past 10 months; a fever line plunging toward “40-year lows” in index crimes, particularly murders; and another blue bar chart highlighting a 15 percent drop in overall crime for 2013, again labeled the “lowest level in 40 years.”
Aldermen, some wearing Halloween costumes, gave these numbers about as much scrutiny as they had the epically disastrous parking meter deal. The daylong session was essentially a love fest. “You’ve done excellent work, and those charts say it all,” cheered Ariel Reboyras, alderman of the 30th Ward, on the city’s Northwest Side. “I say, numbers don’t lie.”
Latasha Thomas, of the 17th Ward, which includes high-crime Englewood on the South Side, encouraged McCarthy to dial up the good news. “I just think your PR needs to be a lot better,” she said. “We need to be shouting about what you are doing and not just throwing up these stats.”
“No doubt about it,” McCarthy replied.
But it wasn’t until the end of November that police leaders could breathe more easily. The official year-to-date homicide count was now 376. With just one month of 2013 remaining, it now seemed a safe bet that the total wouldn’t top 2011’s count of 435.
But why settle there? According to police insiders, McCarthy and his deputies now hungered to reach a new goal: to keep 2013’s number of homicides below 400, the lowest level since before Americans first landed on the moon. “They wanted to really have the big headline,” says a detective. Every homicide mattered. Including Patrick Walker’s.
Just after 5 a.m. on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, a 2012 Chevy sedan with four men inside sped along a residential street in the Pill Hill neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side. Driving conditions were good: clear, no ice, no snow. Yet the car suddenly veered off the road near the intersection of 93rd and Constance, sliding into the opposite lane, clipping a parked vehicle, sailing over the curb, and bashing into a light pole. It stopped only after hitting a tree.
When police got to the car, they found that the three passengers had suffered only minor injuries. However, the driver, a 22-year-old named Patrick Walker, was unresponsive, according to the police report. Officers assumed that he had suffered serious head trauma in the accident. An early case report from the medical examiner’s office said that “brain matter” was found on the steering wheel.
The young man was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he died two hours later. Police told the Tribune that “alcohol was suspected as a factor in the crash.”
Later that day, however, an autopsy showed that Walker had not died from the accident. He had been killed by a single gunshot to his right temple.
Interestingly, the Sun-Times had already reported that police found one of Walker’s passengers, Ivery Isom, 22, with a loaded Glock 9 mm and a 20-round ammunition clip at the accident scene. Police also found a bullet shell in the back seat, according to the police report. (Isom was charged with two counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He pled not guilty; at presstime, his next court appearance was scheduled for April 28.)
On November 30, a pathologist deferred the cause and manner of Walker’s death “pending police investigation.” That means the autopsy is inconclusive until the police further investigate the circumstances of his death.
Walker’s death certificate, filed with the Cook County clerk’s office, says that he was murdered. No one disputes that he died from a bullet in his brain. But at presstime—four months after the shooting—the public record shows Walker’s case inexplicably classified not as a homicide but as a death investigation.
That means, according to the department’s own records, Walker’s killing is not included in the city’s 2013 homicide total.
In mid-December, McCarthy and Emanuel called a news conference to highlight the release of a report from a professor at Yale University. It had found that Chicago was on track to have its lowest homicide rate since 1967 and its lowest violent crime rate for nearly as long. “This is not just 2013 against 2012,” Emanuel told the Sun-Times. “This is 2013 against the last 40 years. That is what is significant.”
Standing in front of a poster-size map showing the drops in overall crime in all of the city’s 22 police districts, the mayor and the superintendent then took questions.
“Have you changed the way you measure statistics?” one reporter asked.
“I don’t buy the premise of the question,” Emanuel answered and quickly moved on.
The reporter persisted: “Has the police department changed the way they measure it?”
“The answer is no,” McCarthy jumped in. “There’s something called a Uniform Crime Report, which is the national standard by which we record crime. So that’s the answer, no.”
Well . . . not exactly. Two weeks earlier, in fact, various media outlets had reported details of an odd change in how Chicago’s police department was counting “delayed homicides”—those in which there is a time lag between injury and death. “To meet federal and state guidelines,” the Sun-Times said, police reviewed all murders in 2013 and 2012. “Under those guidelines, a murder should be classified in the year the person was injured, and not in the year the person died.”
Huh? There were never any changes to federal guidelines, a FBI spokesman told Chicago. The standards of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program make it crystal clear that a homicide should be reported in the year of the victim’s death.
Next we called the Illinois Uniform Crime Report—a one-person office within the state police department that collects statistics from law enforcement agencies in Illinois—to check whether the state rule on delayed homicides had changed in 2013. The staffer told us that it hadn’t; that delayed homicides in Illinois have always been counted in the year of injury.
Confused? So were we. So we e-mailed Adam Collins, the director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department. He e-mailed back: “In late 2013 . . . CPD began working to bring the city into stricter adherence with federal reporting standards. The Unified Crime Reporting System dictates each agency follow their state reporting procedures for federal reporting. According to Illinois reporting procedures, murders where the injury and death occurred in different years are to be tracked to the year of the incident, and CPD had for years been including these incidents in the wrong year.”
However, every Chicago police leader, officer, and administrator with whom we spoke says that hasn’t been the department’s practice. It’s not a murder until the injured person dies, they point out. Before then, it’s an aggravated battery. “CPD is interpreting the state guidelines incorrectly,” says an expert source on Chicago Police Department statistics. “It’s a numbers game.”
Welcome to the Dali-esque world of Chicago crime reporting.
No matter who you believe, it’s clear that the department did change the way in which it counts delayed homicides—but only for the years in which McCarthy has been in charge. It subtracted four murders from the 2013 total, according to Collins. And it subtracted seven murders from 2012, five in which the injuries occurred in 2011.
Did the department add back those five murders to 2011? It doesn’t appear so. Remember that there were 435 homicides in 2011, according to the 2012 year-end CompStat report. But at presstime, the City of Chicago’s own public data portal listed only 434 homicides in 2011.
How is it fair to compare 2013’s homicide totals with those of years before the department changed the rules of the game? It’s not, according to John Eterno, a former NYPD cop and CompStat expert, now a professor of criminal justice at Molloy College in Long Island. “You can’t compare over the years when you do things like that,” he says.
All of this creative number crunching, former police officials say, is a radical departure from past practices. Veteran members of the force blame McCarthy. Muddling murder statistics “benefits no one but the superintendent,” says the retired high-level detective. “Not the citizens, not the investigators. It only benefits him.”
It certainly doesn’t benefit the victims’ families. “I cry many days and many nights,” says Alice Groves, whose daughter Tiara has been dead for eight months. “It makes me feel like they are trying to sweep this under the covers. They want to look good. They want the city to look good. But they ain’t thinking about the family who lost their loved one.”
New Year’s revelry was still in full swing on January 1, 2014, when the Chicago Police Department sent out an e-mail blast just after 2 a.m. The subject line: “Chicago Ends 2013 at Historic Lows in Crime and Violence, More Work Remains.”
Despite the measured tone of that last phrase, the chest thumping was deafening: “fewest murders since 1965”; “lowest murder rate since 1966”; “lowest overall crime rate since 1972”; “fewest robberies, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and arsons in recorded history.” And on and on, percentage after percentage, statistic after statistic after statistic.
But try this: Add back the 10 cases Chicago found that, if classified as sources say they should have been, would have counted as homicides. (There may be more.) Add back the four homicides that occurred on Chicago’s expressways. Add, too, the four delayed homicides that the department had stripped out in December. What you get is not 414 murders in 2013, but at least 432.
What you also get is the kind of public record that every Chicagoan deserves. Not to mention the knowledge that police are doing their jobs. The killers of Tiara Groves, Tiffany Jones, Maurice Harris, Michelle Manalansan, Millicent Brown-Johnson, Jovan Perkins, and Patrick Walker may remain on the streets. As long as their deaths are not considered homicides, that’s unlikely to change, detectives say.
Saddest of all, perhaps, the victims’ grieving families and friends are left with the belief that the system is profoundly unjust. “I wake up every day and I know my son and my son’s mom were murdered,” says Austin Perkins, Jovan’s father. “I just don’t understand how police can categorize it the way they are categorizing it. I just want answers. I just want justice.
“You can’t go around setting buildings on fire and killing people and not be held accountable.”
The second part of this special report, which focuses on other violent crimes and on property crime, will run in the June 2014 issue. Top Photo: Clint Blowers
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