The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates

David Bernstein and Noah Isackson, Chicago Magazine, April 7, 2014

It was a balmy afternoon last July when the call came in: Dead body found inside empty warehouse on the West Side.

Chicago police officers drove through an industrial stretch of the hardscrabble Austin neighborhood and pulled up to the 4600 block of West Arthington Street. The warehouse in question was an unremarkable-looking red-brick single-story building with a tall barbed-wire fence. Vacant for six years, it had been visited that day by its owner and a real-estate agent—the person who had called 911.

The place lacked electricity, so crime scene technicians set up generators and portable lights. The power flickered on to reveal a grisly sight. In a small office, on soggy carpeting covered in broken ceiling tiles, lay a naked, lifeless woman. She had long red-streaked black hair and purple glitter nail polish on her left toenails (her right ones were gone), but beyond that it was hard to discern much. Her face and body were bloated and badly decomposed, her hands ash colored. Maggots feasted on her flesh.

At the woman’s feet, detectives found a curled strand of telephone wire. Draped over her right hand was a different kind of wire: thin and brown. The same brown wire was wrapped around each armrest of a wooden chair next to her.

The following day, July 24, a pathologist in the Cook County medical examiner’s office noticed something else that had been obscured by rotting skin: a thin gag tied around the corpse’s mouth.

Thanks to some still-visible tattoos, detectives soon identified this unfortunate woman: Tiara Groves, a 20-year-old from Austin. She was last seen walking alone in the wee hours of Sunday, July 14, near a liquor store two miles from the warehouse. At least eight witnesses who saw her that night told police a similar story: She appeared drunk and was upset—one man said that she was crying so hard she couldn’t catch her breath—but refused offers of help. A man who talked to her outside the liquor store said that Groves warned him, excitedly and incoherently, that he should stay away from her or else somebody (she didn’t say who) would kill him too.

Toxicology tests showed she had heroin and alcohol in her system, but not enough to kill her. All signs pointed to foul play. According to the young woman’s mother, who had filed a missing-person report, the police had no doubt. “When this detective came to my house, he said, ‘We found your daughter. . . . Your daughter has been murdered,’ ” Alice Groves recalls. “He told me they’re going to get the one that did it.”

On October 28, a pathologist ruled the death of Tiara Groves a homicide by “unspecified means.” This rare ruling means yes, somebody had killed Groves, but the pathologist couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of death.

Given the finding of homicide—and the corroborating evidence at the crime scene—the Chicago Police Department should have counted Groves’s death as a murder. And it did. Until December 18. On that day, the police report indicates, a lieutenant overseeing the Groves case reclassified the homicide investigation as a noncriminal death investigation. In his writeup, he cited the medical examiner’s “inability to determine a cause of death.”

That lieutenant was Denis Walsh—the same cop who had played a crucial role in the alleged cover-up in the 2004 killing of David Koschman, the 21-year-old who died after being punched by a nephew of former mayor Richard M. Daley. Walsh allegedly took the Koschman file home. For years, police officials said that it was lost. After the Sun-Times reported it missing, the file mysteriously reappeared.

But back to Tiara Groves. With the stroke of a computer key, she was airbrushed out of Chicago’s homicide statistics.

The change stunned officers. Current and former veteran detectives who reviewed the Groves case at Chicago’s request were just as incredulous. Says a retired high-level detective, “How can you be tied to a chair and gagged, with no clothes on, and that’s a [noncriminal] death investigation?” (He, like most of the nearly 40 police sources interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name, citing fears of disciplinary action or other retribution.)

Was it just a coincidence, some wondered, that the reclassification occurred less than two weeks before the end of the year, when the city of Chicago’s final homicide numbers for 2013 would be tallied? “They essentially wiped away one of the murders in the city, which is crazy,” says a police insider. “But that’s the kind of shit that’s going on.”

For the case of Tiara Groves is not an isolated one. Chicago conducted a 12-month examination of the Chicago Police Department’s crime statistics going back several years, poring through public and internal police records and interviewing crime victims, criminologists, and police sources of various ranks. We identified 10 people, including Groves, who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents—all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons.

This troubling practice goes far beyond murders, documents and interviews reveal. Chicago found dozens of other crimes, including serious felonies such as robberies, burglaries, and assaults, that were misclassified, downgraded to wrist-slap offenses, or made to vanish altogether. (We’ll examine those next month in part 2 of this special report.)

Many officers of different ranks and from different parts of the city recounted instances in which they were asked or pressured by their superiors to reclassify their incident reports or in which their reports were changed by some invisible hand. One detective refers to the “magic ink”: the power to make a case disappear. Says another: “The rank and file don’t agree with what’s going on. The powers that be are making the changes.”

Granted, a few dozen crimes constitute a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 reported in Chicago last year. But sources describe a practice that has become widespread at the same time that top police brass have become fixated on demonstrating improvement in Chicago’s woeful crime statistics.

And has there ever been improvement. Aside from homicides, which soared in 2012, the drop in crime since Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy arrived in May 2011 is unprecedented—and, some of his detractors say, unbelievable. Crime hasn’t just fallen, it has freefallen: across the city and across all major categories.

Take “index crimes”: the eight violent and property crimes that virtually all U.S. cities supply to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its Uniform Crime Report. According to police figures, the number of these crimes plunged by 56 percent citywide from 2010 to 2013—an average of nearly 19 percent per year—a reduction that borders on the miraculous. {snip}

This dramatic crime reduction has been happening even as the department has been bleeding officers. (A recent Tribune analysis listed 7,078 beat cops on the streets, 10 percent fewer than in 2011.) Given these facts, the crime reduction “makes no sense,” says one veteran sergeant. “And it makes absolutely no sense that people believe it. Yet people believe it.”

The city’s inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, may not. Chicago has learned that his office has questioned the accuracy of the police department’s crime statistics. A spokeswoman confirmed that the office recently finalized an audit of the police department’s 2012 crime data—though only for assault-related crimes so far—“to determine if CPD accurately classified [these categories of] crimes under its written guidelines and if it reported related crime statistics correctly.” (The audit found, among other things, that the department undercounted aggravated assaults and batteries by more than 24 percent, based on the sample cases reviewed.)

Meanwhile, the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil pols on Chicago’s City Council have mostly accepted the police department’s crime numbers at face value. So have most in the media. You can hardly turn on the news without hearing McCarthy or Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaiming unquestioned: Murders down 18 percent in 2013! Overall crime down 23 percent! Twelve thousand fewer crime victims! “These days, everything is about media and public opinion,” says one longtime officer. “If a number makes people feel safe, then why not give it to them?”


Still, it looked bad for Mayor Emanuel. His disapproval rating in the polls was rising sharply, particularly among black voters. Behind closed doors, according to a City Hall insider, Emanuel told his police chief that the department had better not allow a repeat performance of 2012 or McCarthy’s days in Chicago would be numbered. (Through a spokeswoman, the mayor declined to comment for this article.)

McCarthy called 2012’s homicide total [507] a “tragic number” and vowed that things would be different in 2013. The mindset inside police headquarters, recalls one officer: “Whatever you gotta do, this can’t happen again.”

The chief felt even more pressure than his rank and file may have realized. For the former New Yorker to prove that his policing strategies worked in Chicago, he would need to keep the number of murders not just below 2012’s total but also below 2011’s: 435.

To do so, McCarthy leaned even more heavily on a tool that has proved wildly successful in his hometown: CompStat. Borrowing performance-management principles from the business world, CompStat collects, analyzes, and maps a city’s crime data in real time. These statistics help police track trouble spots more accurately and pinpoint where officers are needed most. The department’s number crunchers can slice and dice the stats all sorts of ways, spitting out reports showing percentage changes in various crimes by neighborhood over different time frames, for example: month to month, week to week—heck, hour to hour.

Armed with those statistics, the police brass turn up the pressure in weekly meetings, grilling field commanders about crime in their areas. The statistics are widely said to make or break a career. “The only evaluation is the numbers,” says a veteran sergeant. “God forbid your crime is up. If you have a 20 percent reduction this month, you’d better have a 21 percent reduction the next month.”


If the numbers are bad, the district commanders and officers get reamed out by McCarthy and the other bosses at headquarters. These targets frequently leave the meetings seething. Even McCarthy concedes that such meetings can get ugly. “When I was a commander in New York, it was full contact,” he told Chicago in 2012. “And if you weren’t careful, you could lose an eye.”


In August—typically Chicago’s hottest month—the stress inside Chicago Police Department headquarters was palpable. That’s when several police insiders first told Chicago about what they called “the panel.”

Said to be made up of a small group of very high-level officers, the panel allegedly began scrutinizing death cases in which the victims didn’t die immediately or where the circumstances that led to the deaths couldn’t be immediately determined, sources say. Panel members were looking for anything that could be delayed, keeping it off the books for a week, a month, maybe a year. “Whatever the case may be, it had to wait until it came back from the panel,” says a well-placed police insider. “All this was to hide the murder numbers, that’s all they are doing.” (How many cases did get delayed, if any, is unknown.)

By the end of August the department had counted 286 homicides since January—80 fewer than in 2012.

With the summer all but behind them, the police brass pretty much knew that, barring some extraordinary crime wave, the year’s homicide count would not eclipse 2012’s. But 2013’s total this far was still eight more than recorded during the same period in 2011. For McCarthy, beating the 2011 number was starting to look like an elusive goal.

On September 19, two gun-toting gangbangers opened fire on a crowded pickup basketball game in Cornell Park, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. One of them used an AK-47. When the bullets stopped flying, 13 people had been wounded, including a three-year-old boy. But no one died. A “miracle,” McCarthy said. (In the stats book, the shootings counted as only one “shooting incident” in CompStat. Read more about that in part 2 of this story.)


The breakthrough happened in October. On the last day of the month, the 2013 year-to-date total was 352, versus 353 in 2011, by the department’s count. McCarthy had edged out 2011 by just one number.

October 31 also marked Superintendent McCarthy’s annual budget hearing before the Chicago City Council. He positioned himself in front of three giant charts: a set of blue bars illustrating how murders had dropped 20 percent over the past 10 months; a fever line plunging toward “40-year lows” in index crimes, particularly murders; and another blue bar chart highlighting a 15 percent drop in overall crime for 2013, again labeled the “lowest level in 40 years.”

Aldermen, some wearing Halloween costumes, gave these numbers about as much scrutiny as they had the epically disastrous parking meter deal. The daylong session was essentially a love fest. “You’ve done excellent work, and those charts say it all,” cheered Ariel Reboyras, alderman of the 30th Ward, on the city’s Northwest Side. “I say, numbers don’t lie.”

Latasha Thomas, of the 17th Ward, which includes high-crime Englewood on the South Side, encouraged McCarthy to dial up the good news. “I just think your PR needs to be a lot better,” she said. “We need to be shouting about what you are doing and not just throwing up these stats.”

“No doubt about it,” McCarthy replied.

But it wasn’t until the end of November that police leaders could breathe more easily. The official year-to-date homicide count was now 376. With just one month of 2013 remaining, it now seemed a safe bet that the total wouldn’t top 2011’s count of 435.

But why settle there? According to police insiders, McCarthy and his deputies now hungered to reach a new goal: to keep 2013’s number of homicides below 400, the lowest level since before Americans first landed on the moon. “They wanted to really have the big headline,” says a detective. Every homicide mattered. Including Patrick Walker’s.

Just after 5 a.m. on November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, a 2012 Chevy sedan with four men inside sped along a residential street in the Pill Hill neighborhood on the city’s Far South Side. Driving conditions were good: clear, no ice, no snow. Yet the car suddenly veered off the road near the intersection of 93rd and Constance, sliding into the opposite lane, clipping a parked vehicle, sailing over the curb, and bashing into a light pole. It stopped only after hitting a tree.

When police got to the car, they found that the three passengers had suffered only minor injuries. However, the driver, a 22-year-old named Patrick Walker, was unresponsive, according to the police report. Officers assumed that he had suffered serious head trauma in the accident. An early case report from the medical examiner’s office said that “brain matter” was found on the steering wheel.

The young man was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, where he died two hours later. Police told the Tribune that “alcohol was suspected as a factor in the crash.”

Later that day, however, an autopsy showed that Walker had not died from the accident. He had been killed by a single gunshot to his right temple.

Interestingly, the Sun-Times had already reported that police found one of Walker’s passengers, Ivery Isom, 22, with a loaded Glock 9 mm and a 20-round ammunition clip at the accident scene. Police also found a bullet shell in the back seat, according to the police report. (Isom was charged with two counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He pled not guilty; at presstime, his next court appearance was scheduled for April 28.)

On November 30, a pathologist deferred the cause and manner of Walker’s death “pending police investigation.” That means the autopsy is inconclusive until the police further investigate the circumstances of his death.

Walker’s death certificate, filed with the Cook County clerk’s office, says that he was murdered. No one disputes that he died from a bullet in his brain. But at presstime—four months after the shooting—the public record shows Walker’s case inexplicably classified not as a homicide but as a death investigation.

That means, according to the department’s own records, Walker’s killing is not included in the city’s 2013 homicide total.

In mid-December, McCarthy and Emanuel called a news conference to highlight the release of a report from a professor at Yale University. It had found that Chicago was on track to have its lowest homicide rate since 1967 and its lowest violent crime rate for nearly as long. “This is not just 2013 against 2012,” Emanuel told the Sun-Times. “This is 2013 against the last 40 years. That is what is significant.”

Standing in front of a poster-size map showing the drops in overall crime in all of the city’s 22 police districts, the mayor and the superintendent then took questions.

“Have you changed the way you measure statistics?” one reporter asked.

“I don’t buy the premise of the question,” Emanuel answered and quickly moved on.

The reporter persisted: “Has the police department changed the way they measure it?”

“The answer is no,” McCarthy jumped in. “There’s something called a Uniform Crime Report, which is the national standard by which we record crime. So that’s the answer, no.”

Well . . . not exactly. Two weeks earlier, in fact, various media outlets had reported details of an odd change in how Chicago’s police department was counting “delayed homicides”—those in which there is a time lag between injury and death. “To meet federal and state guidelines,” the Sun-Times said, police reviewed all murders in 2013 and 2012. “Under those guidelines, a murder should be classified in the year the person was injured, and not in the year the person died.”

Huh? There were never any changes to federal guidelines, a FBI spokesman told Chicago. The standards of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program make it crystal clear that a homicide should be reported in the year of the victim’s death.

Next we called the Illinois Uniform Crime Report—a one-person office within the state police department that collects statistics from law enforcement agencies in Illinois—to check whether the state rule on delayed homicides had changed in 2013. The staffer told us that it hadn’t; that delayed homicides in Illinois have always been counted in the year of injury.

Confused? So were we. So we e-mailed Adam Collins, the director of news affairs for the Chicago Police Department. He e-mailed back: “In late 2013 . . . CPD began working to bring the city into stricter adherence with federal reporting standards. The Unified Crime Reporting System dictates each agency follow their state reporting procedures for federal reporting. According to Illinois reporting procedures, murders where the injury and death occurred in different years are to be tracked to the year of the incident, and CPD had for years been including these incidents in the wrong year.”

However, every Chicago police leader, officer, and administrator with whom we spoke says that hasn’t been the department’s practice. It’s not a murder until the injured person dies, they point out. Before then, it’s an aggravated battery. “CPD is interpreting the state guidelines incorrectly,” says an expert source on Chicago Police Department statistics. “It’s a numbers game.”

Welcome to the Dali-esque world of Chicago crime reporting.

No matter who you believe, it’s clear that the department did change the way in which it counts delayed homicides—but only for the years in which McCarthy has been in charge. It subtracted four murders from the 2013 total, according to Collins. And it subtracted seven murders from 2012, five in which the injuries occurred in 2011.

Did the department add back those five murders to 2011? It doesn’t appear so. Remember that there were 435 homicides in 2011, according to the 2012 year-end CompStat report. But at presstime, the City of Chicago’s own public data portal listed only 434 homicides in 2011.


New Year’s revelry was still in full swing on January 1, 2014, when the Chicago Police Department sent out an e-mail blast just after 2 a.m. The subject line: “Chicago Ends 2013 at Historic Lows in Crime and Violence, More Work Remains.”

Despite the measured tone of that last phrase, the chest thumping was deafening: “fewest murders since 1965”; “lowest murder rate since 1966”; “lowest overall crime rate since 1972”; “fewest robberies, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and arsons in recorded history.” And on and on, percentage after percentage, statistic after statistic after statistic.

But try this: Add back the 10 cases Chicago found that, if classified as sources say they should have been, would have counted as homicides. (There may be more.) Add back the four homicides that occurred on Chicago’s expressways. Add, too, the four delayed homicides that the department had stripped out in December. What you get is not 414 murders in 2013, but at least 432.

What you also get is the kind of public record that every Chicagoan deserves. Not to mention the knowledge that police are doing their jobs. The killers of Tiara Groves, Tiffany Jones, Maurice Harris, Michelle Manalansan, Millicent Brown-Johnson, Jovan Perkins, and Patrick Walker may remain on the streets. As long as their deaths are not considered homicides, that’s unlikely to change, detectives say.


The second part of this special report, which focuses on other violent crimes and on property crime, will run in the June 2014 issue.


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