It’s getting easier to get away with shooting people in Chicago.
Last year, gunmen who shot and wounded someone got away without criminal charges 94 percent of the time, according to a DNAinfo.com Chicago analysis of police data.
That’s even worse than 2011, when 91.5 percent of shooters escaped charges, according to the data.
Chicago’s top cop said the “no-snitch” code of silence on the street is the biggest contributor in his department’s struggle to charge shooters.
“The challenges we have to get charges in a significant number of cases is very difficult when witnesses and victims choose not to cooperate," Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said in an interview with DNAinfo.com Chicago.
"To make cases prosecutable we need cooperative witnesses — and those go out the window right up front. We have a victim today who is an offender tomorrow. It's a vicious circle. There are a lot of people who are not going to cooperate," he said. "That's why we have to take on the no-snitch issue."
In 2012, Chicago police cleared 211 aggravated battery with a firearm cases — 11 percent of the 1,893 incidents where someone was shot and wounded during the calendar year.
But of those cases, only 111 shootings — about 6 percent — resulted in charges. The other 100 cases were "cleared exceptionally,” which means police know who the shooter is but were unable to bring charges, the state’s attorney wouldn’t bring charges, a victim refused to testify after identifying a shooter or the offender was dead.
Detectives in 2012 were able to clear 144 cases that happened before 2012. But even when you factor in those cases, Chicago's total clearance rate — 18.8 percent — is nearly half the national average cited in the most recent FBI report on clearance rates.
In 2010, eight police departments in cities with more than 1 million residents cleared 35.5 percent of nonfatal shootings with an arrest, the FBI report shows.
Some say the low clearance rate sends the wrong message to Chicago triggermen.
“If only 6 percent of people involved in nonlethal shootings are charged, it clearly doesn’t set much of a deterrent,” said former Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis, a former FBI supervisor. “What it says is you have pretty good odds that you won’t wind up in court or wind up in jail. That’s something that needs to be examined to find out why this is happening.”
Police sources told DNAinfo.com Chicago that the Cook County State's Attorney's "felony review" process also has made it difficult to bring charges against shooters.
Detectives say that rather than approving or denying charges against arrested suspects in nonfatal shooting cases, prosecutors often insist police get more information — typically an eyewitness willing to testify in court. They call that "C.I.-ing" a case — law enforcement slang for a "continuing investigation."
And that can be frustrating for police because it often leads to suspended investigations and suspected gunmen being released without charges. A police source said rank-and-file detectives believe prosecutors don't charge cases in order to improve conviction rates.
"They get rated on the number of cases they take in and the number of convictions they get," a police source said of the state's attorney's office. "What the result is, we have people shot and don't get charges. We don't get clearances."
About 83 percent of last year's nonfatal shooting investigations were suspended. In 2011, 78 percent of nonfatal shooting investigations were suspended, according to police data.
McCarthy said the number of suspended investigations is "absolutely high."
"It's not only a Chicago problem, but it's the worst I've seen compared to other places," McCarthy said.
Top police brass are slated to meet with Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office to discuss the felony review process, which has been in place since 1972.
Alvarez chief of staff Dan Kirk said the state's attorney office wants to hear the concerns police have about felony review decisions.
"We're all ears," he said. "We will not stubbornly hold on to any system because we've done it a long time."
But Kirk said prosecutors do not ask detectives to continue investigations as a way to increase their conviction "batting average."
"With all respect, I think [some] detectives don't understand our burden of proof and their burden are two different animals," Kirk said. "Our burden of proof is much more than the standard police have to meet to make an arrest. We must have sufficient evidence to bring charges with a good faith belief that we can meet the burden of proof once the case goes to trial.
"Even though we know so-and-so did it, and it's frustrating for police and us, unless there's evidence to bring a charge, it's not there. This is as much meant to hold guilty people accountable as it is to assure innocent people are not wrongfully accused. That's an incredibly important point," Kirk said.
Kirk said the no-snitch code of silence — combined with a "lack of trust of law enforcement" and fear would-be witnesses have of being retaliated against for testifying — definitely has had a negative impact on bringing charges.
"Chicago police and our office is working diligently to repair that trust in hope that cooperation improves as trust improves and we'll see greater cooperation from witnesses and victims and more people willing to come forward to testify," Kirk said.
There's no telling whether the police powwow with prosecutors will lead to changes in the felony review process.
But Weis — who was Chicago's top cop in 2010, when 91 percent of shootings did not result in charges — said the low clearance rate is serious enough to warrant a study by an independent group that doesn't have "skin in the game."
"Naturally, police and prosecutors will be defensive of what their role is in the process. It would be nice to have an independent group look at this and try to figure out something," he said.
“We should look at what is preventing cases being charged. Is it a matter of workload? Is it a matter of community cooperation? Is it a matter of prosecutors not wanting to take these cases?" Weis said.