LOOP — A makeover of the Chicago Police Department's detective division has led to a spike in solved murders — particularly cold-case homicides, DNAinfo.com Chicago has learned.
So far this year, homicide detectives have solved 50 of the 214 murders tallied in Chicago between Jan. 1 and July 18, according to police data.
Police this year also solved another 71 murders that occurred in previous years. That’s 11 more cold-case killings than the department solved all of last year, police statistics show.
Not all of those solved murders, however, led to someone getting charged. Some cases are "cleared exceptionally” because murder suspects identified by investigators are dead, or prosecutors declined to bring charges for a variety of reasons, including witnesses refusing to testify.
In all, 31 percent of murders solved so far this year were cleared "exceptionally."
Still, the increase in cleared murder cases this year — 121 compared with 93 during the same period in 2012 — hints that Police Department tweaks to the violent crime investigative strategies could help improve Chicago's dismal murder clearance rate.
Chicago’s new “team” approach to investigating murders and the promotion of 70 new detectives have played a major role in solving more murders than last year, when the department’s 25 percent clearance rate hit a 21-year low, detective division Deputy Chief Tony Riccio said.
Starting last summer, Chicago police ended the practice of assigning murder investigations to a randomly selected pair of homicide detectives. Now, a sergeant oversees a team of about 10 detectives that works together to investigate murders.
"They say two heads are better than one. Well, we found eight heads are better than two," Riccio said. "It’s really made a big difference. It’s a new way to do it. It’s never been done in Chicago before.”
The change helps maintain the “continuity” of investigations that sometimes would get delayed when detectives assigned to cases had time off work. It also allows detectives with different investigative strengths to use their talents more effectively.
“Some detectives are outstanding interviewers. Other guys are better at crime scenes. Some guys are computer whizzes,” Riccio said. “By taking all those talents on one team, you get the best of everybody working a case."
Investigators also are finding more cooperating witnesses willing to buck the pervasive "no-snitch" code of silence on the street.
This year, witnesses came forward to help police catch alleged shooters in several high-profile homicides — the murders of teenagers Hadiya Pendleton and Kevin Ambrose, specifically — and murders that didn't make the evening news, Riccio said.
“The community has been really stepping up a lot more this year than we’ve seen in previous years. I think we’re making some progress on the no-snitch code,” Riccio said. “Quite frankly, we don’t witness the murders so we needed the help of the community to link people to these cases. And we’ve gotten it. … People are tired of being prisoners essentially in their homes and have come to the realization that they need to take ownership of their neighborhood and their blocks.”
Ebony Ambrose will tell you she got justice for her son's murder because an eyewitness bravely identified Jerome Brown, the man now charged with killing her son. Wentworth District beat cops caught him, and homicide detectives worked up a solid enough case to get felony murder charges.
About a week after Ebony Ambrose went to court to get a first look at the man charged with killing Kevin, she met with detectives who investigated her son's murder to thank them. She couldn't thank them enough.
Chicago's top cop said a commitment to community policing — specifically assigning cops to beats — has helped slowly build trust between residents and officers in violent neighborhoods.
"You can draw a correlation to the methods we use, reliance on the beat officer, procedural justice and legitimacy. People are working with us because we have the same cops on the same beats every day," McCarthy said. "The more trust we build, the more information we get, and we solve more crimes. It's impossible to not get results."
A decrease in murders — 75 fewer than the same time six-month period last year — also has helped homicide detectives be more effective.
“We’re not spreading ourselves quite as thin,” Riccio said. “Detectives are able to zero in on cases, pay more attention and spend more time on them simply because the volume is down. It’s also enabled us to turn around and focus on [murders in] previous years.”
Still, six months of success solving murders isn’t much to celebrate. Overall, police are on pace to solve about 23 percent of this year’s murders. If that holds true, it would be the Police Department's lowest clearance rate in 22 years, according to the most recent Chicago police statistics available.
Chicago’s clearance rate lags behind departments in other big cities. For instance, New York City's cops solved 75 percent of murders in 2012, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report.
Last year, Chicago's homicide clearance rate was 37 percent, including solved cold-case murders from previous years. Nationally, police departments posted a 65 percent homicide clearance rate in 2011, according to the most recent FBI statistics available.
McCarthy said he expects better results in the future. And he plans to promote another round of detectives later this year to further the upward trend in solving murders.
"Everything we're doing is an evolution. As we find better ways to do things, we'll make tweaks. We're looking to promote more detectives at the end of the summer," McCarthy said. "It won't be as big of a class, but more detectives will help. We're improving."