Getting away with murder: WGN Investigates the city’s alarmingly low number of solved cases

While there’s a lot of attention on the number of people killed in Chicago, a lesser known statistic also tells the story of pain and insecurity gripping the streets.

That number is 29%. That’s the percentage of murders solved by Chicago police last year. In other words, 71% of killers got away with murder.

“It’s a struggle and it’s a battle at the same time,” said Ebonie Martin. Her son, Deonte Hoard, was a 17-year-old Urban Prep student who died March 2, 2015.

His case is one of hundreds in police files that remain unsolved.

“At the end of the day, my son lost his voice so I have to speak for him,” she said

Martin and other parents who have lost children to unsolved murders met with WGN News to talk about the ongoing pain the lack of closure causes.

“She’s my child,” Nortasha Stingley said of her daughter Marissa. “I birthed her. I loved her. I fought for her in life and I’m damn sure going to fight for her when someone takes her life.”

Chicago’s murder clearance rate lags behind other major cities. Police in New York City, for example, report solving 80% of their murder cases last year. The most recent data available from the FBI shows the national average was 61%.

Chicago police point to an entrenched “no snitching” policy brutally enforced by the city’s street gangs as one reason for the lower clearance rate.

“I call it the ‘everybody knows theory…’ everybody in the neighborhood knows who did it,” said Chicago police commander Brendan Dennihan who oversees the Area Central detective division.

Parents have seen it too.

“[My son’s] case is unsolved because there’s no cooperation,” said Martin. “No one seen nothing. No one heard nothing. The guy he got shot with, he don’t know anything, don’t know who did it.”

But police statistics portray another factor that experts say contributes to low solve rate: The sheer number of murders may be overwhelming investigators.

In 2015 and 2016, detectives solved roughly the same number of homicides (227 and 225, respectively). But because the number of murders soared between those two years (488 murders in 2015 and 770 murders in 2016) the solve rate between the two years fell dramatically: From 47% down to 29%.

Commander Deenihan doesn’t dispute those numbers, and concedes detectives can feel overloaded.

Chicago police detectives work in 8-person teams, with each team handling roughly 50 murders per year.

The department previously announced plans to bring on 200 additional detectives by the end of next year to lighten their load and send a message.

“I think if we would hold people who shoot other people accountable right away, I think the next person in line that was thinking about going and retaliation would think twice,” Deenihan said.

Some parents who have lost loved ones to violence say the lack of criminal charges is one more painful burden to carry.

“It would be some type of closure,” Tonya Burch said. Her son Deontae Smith died in 2009.

“[It’s] something all us parents want to hear: ‘Hey, we caught the person that killed your child,’” she said.

Alan Scott’s daughter Kayla Nicole Prior was murdered in November of 2015.

“The 700 murders we have per year - I could accept that more if it was 700 arrests,” said Scott. “They know how to get away with it, and that’s a shame.”

Chicago police point to a small increase in the clearance rate so far this year. It’s grown from just 29% of murder cases solved last year to 37% so far this year.