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7 Ways To Hide A Murder... And Other Ways Chicago Police Keep Crimes Quiet

By Jen Sabella | May 12, 2015 12:58pm

CHICAGO — Reporting on crime in Chicago is a difficult job. While it does not compare to the anguish suffered by victims and their family members, for reporters who talk to grieving survivors or see a body under a sheet in the street, the assignment carries an emotional toll.

Unfortunately, getting basic details on criminal cases from police and other city officials brings a whole different set of challenges.

On Monday, one year after their award-winning investigation into how the Chicago Police Department creatively counts murders, Chicago magazine revisited how the department classifies violent crimes — and found that few things have changed.

Actually, the magazine reports, the department has found "seven new ways to hide a murder" in the data it reports to the public.

The 2014 investigation found "that the department underreported homicides in 2013 by misclassifying at least 10 killings," the magazine reports. "We also revealed how the department systematically downgraded other violent felonies and serious property crimes."


When other media outlets followed up with police and the mayor's office about the shocking revelations, Chicago reports that the department and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office cared more about "damage control" than answering questions. Emails obtained by Chicago show that a spokeswoman for Emanuel's office and the former media affairs spokesman for the police department laughed off requests in emails, with one spokesman mocking "Chicago Tonight"  for being part of PBS — "the people who air Sesame Street," he said.

To Chicago journalists who cover crime regularly, this response is not surprising. If anything, despite Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Emanuel's vows to be transparent, reporting on crime here has gotten a lot more difficult in recent years.

What would we do without Twitter and police scanners? Perhaps pull our hair out.

Most local crime reporters will bemoan the process of gathering information on a shooting, let alone a murder.

For years (and for as long as anyone in our newsroom can remember), reporters went to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office at 5 a.m. to get a list of the people who died in Cook County overnight. It allowed reporters to look into the circumstances of the deaths right away. But after shakeups at the office, things changed.

Now, the office sends out a list of names, but often homicide victims are left off the list entirely. And reporters are no longer allowed at the morgue. Sometimes it will take days for a name to appear on an autopsy report, if the name of the victim shows up at all.

Since the police department does not notify media of these fatalities, reporters are often forced to chase each other, or listen to police scanners 24/7 to know what's going on. Officers in the districts and on the scenes have been warned not to talk to media. And whoever did for the Chicago mag story is apparently in trouble:

This is not common practice in other big city departments.

In New York City, police regularly send out email alerts to news desks on select crimes. Often, there is a narrative and a description of the suspect if it's available. The NYPD has also taken to Twitter, with each precinct tweeting from its own account, and regularly publishes crime data on its website. 

So what happens now? One idea: Make the crime data portal better. It admirably posts crime incidents dating back to 2001 — up-to-date to the week before — but it's a daunting mix of addresses and crime codes presented without context. You can't easily identify shootings on it. 

We now have a booming technology industry, and I'm sure one of those tech pros at 1871 could improve the data portal so normal Chicagoans (not just journalists) can see what's happening in their neighborhood in a timely fashion.

But based on Chicago's reporting, that is the last thing the city wants to do.

Until then, we'll be at CAPS meetings and have the scanners on blast 24/7. Also, we'll be following these city crime reporters and scanner pros on Twitter, and suggest you do as well:

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