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CHICAGO — Violence has always been a hallmark of Chicago. And, like other metropolises across the country, the city has struggled in recent years to tamp down violence that’s flared up in the wake of high-profile police killings.

The city saw sharp upticks in shootings after the release of the Laquan McDonald murder video in late 2015, and again in 2020 after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Chicago’s international reputation for bloodshed was bolstered again last year as the city eclipsed 800 murders on the year for the first time in a quarter century. 

Police officials are quick to note the high rate at which officers take illegal guns off the street — more than 8,000 in 2021 — and CPD Supt. David Brown has often highlighted the work of the department’s detectives, those officers tasked with investigating the hundreds of yearly killings on the city’s streets.

In the last year, Brown has moved to mint another 200 detectives — many of whom were assigned to the South and West sides where violence is most common — and he’s said he will ask for more money in the CPD’s 2023 budget to allow him to keep growing the ranks. 

Using data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, WGN Investigates analyzed 10 years’ worth of cleared murder cases.

Among the findings, the data show that as CPD detectives clear more murder cases, local prosecutors are more often declining to press charges in those cases.

What is a ‘cleared’ murder case?

A murder case will be “cleared” in one of three ways.  

Most clearances result in criminal charges brought against a suspect. However, if those charges are later dropped or the suspect is found not guilty at trial, the CPD will still consider it a cleared case.  

Another “cleared” designation is “death to offender.” That means the person who the CPD believes to have committed the murder died before charges were brought. Often, those uncharged suspects are murder victims, too. 

The third “cleared” category is “bar to prosecution.” That means prosecutors were presented evidence collected by police, but they did not believe there was enough to secure a conviction. Even if prosecutors decline to bring charges, the murder is still considered “cleared” by CPD. 

In 10 years, more than 6,000 killings

Between April 1, 2012 and April 20, 2022, the Chicago recorded 6,044 murders, according to publicly accessible city data. In that time, the CPD opened 5,771 murder investigations as incidents with more than one victim — double, triple and quadruple murders — are still classified as a single case.

(Not every murder that occurs in Chicago is investigated by the CPD. For example, fatal shootings that occur on Chicago expressways are investigated by the Illinois State Police.)

In that 10-year span, Chicago police detectives cleared 2,292 murder cases, according to the data obtained by WGN Investigates.

Of those cleared cases, just over two-thirds — 1,548 — resulted in criminal charges brought against a suspect. Another 222 cases — nearly were cleared via “death to offender.” 

But prosecutors didn’t think there was enough evidence to secure a conviction in the other 524 murder cases that the CPD says it solved in the last 10 years — 22% of all clearances in that time frame. 

(In two instances, the CPD said a case was cleared both by “death to offender” and “bar to prosecution.”)

Source: Chicago Police Department

Changes over time

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office handles the majority of cleared murder cases that eventually result in criminal charges.

Data show that between April 2012 and December 2016 — the last term of former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez — prosecutors refused to bring charges in 108 of the CPD’s 896 cleared murders — about 12%.

Between January 2017 and April 2022 — after Kim Foxx ousted Alvarez as State’s Attorney — the CPD cleared 1,396 murder cases. In that time, prosecutors declined to bring charges in 416 of those cases — about 30% of all murder cases deemed cleared by the CPD in that period.

Alvarez could not be reached for comment.

In an emailed statement, a representative for the CPD said the department “works closely with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office during homicide investigations to hold violent offenders accountable. We will continue to collaborate with our prosecutorial partners to bring justice to the victims and families of homicides.”

A representative for Foxx’s office said each murder case brought to prosecutors is judged on its merits.

“If the totality of evidence is enough to approve charges, then we do,” a statement from the state’s attorney’s office read. “If there is not enough evidence to meet our burden of proof in court, we work closely with law enforcement to guide them in what evidence would help us meet the burden in court.  Our office will always review new evidence and will work closely with CPD or other police departments to bring justice for the people of Cook County.”