Not forgetting forgotten lives – a reporting lesson

After we tell the story of violence, how often do we go back?

How often do we see how the  victims and survivors fare?

Not often enough. Or maybe not at all.

A remarkably compelling and informative project by a Columbia College class does what few have done here or nationally. It tracks down those left behind, tells us about how they are coping, and how the criminal justice system deals with them.

The answer is a heartbreaking one. There’s not enough counseling.There’s the mother who wants to commit suicide. The parent who never leaves the house. Relying on groups set up by survivors, the project powerfully explains why such support is needed.

Unanswered Calls

But even more despairing is the neglect and isolation of the survivors in terms of keeping them updated on the murder cases. There’s often not a call or contact from Chicago police for months and longer as families wait hungrily for the smallest morsel of information, the project tells us.

As Patrick Smith, one of the students says in an interview with WBEZ on the project, the survivors “feel left on their own……You get the sense that nobody cares.”

A family of a murdered 14-year-old asks after a year of going without information from the police, “Are they even doing anything?”

Workers at an Uptown beauty salon where there was a murder wonder why they haven’t been contacted six months later.

A killer  calls a family and asks forgiveness but nothing happens and the family waits in the dark, wondering about the case for over two years.

Another killer tells a mother that he shot her son by accident, but adds that he won’t turn himself in, and again, there’s no word on what’s happening to the case.

In nearly all of the stories, the response is the same, an e-mail from a police spokesmen explaining that police are required to contact the survivors at certain intervals and that solving homicides is a difficult timeless task.

How And  We Count and What do We Count?

Indeed. The project points out that the clearance rate, or the percentage of solved homicides was about 30 percent in 2012, and that rate has not changed much from the prior two years.

The national homicide clearance rate in 2010 was 65 percent and the same rate for Baltimore, for example, in 2011, was 33 percent. A story earlier this year by DNAinfo says that Chicago’s clearance rate in 2012 fell to 25 percent, the lowest in two decades.

But there’s a problem and some confusion here in reporting clearance rates.

Some cities count solved cases that took place in the current year and prior years as well, so-called cold cases. When they do this, the clearance rate tends to climb, and as a Washington Post story reports, the reported rate in D.C. reflects this strategy.

Another wrinkle in how police count their clearance rate is explained by the DNA Info article:

“And even when police clear murder cases, that doesn’t mean someone always gets charged with murder.

Last year, 12 murders — or 9 percent of solved cases — were cleared “exceptionally.” That means a suspect has been identified, but charges weren’t filed because the suspected killer is dead, witnesses refuse to testify or prosecutors refuse to bring charges without more evidence.

Police also solved an additional 60 homicides that occurred in previous years. Thirty-one of those cases were cleared exceptionally without charges being filed.”

So, is the real time  clearance rate lower than 25 percent, as DNA Info reported?

So, the Columbia project stands out because of the innovation of coming up an important and unexamined issue despite several years of media attention to violence.

And as importantly, it does with a powerful dose of humanity, presented in pictures and words.

What Lessons Have We Learned Here?

What more can be done?

Has there been any funding allocated for more centralized and consistent counseling for the survivors?

What’s the Chicago Police department’s take on the complaints of silence and unanswered calls? Have there been any internal reviews or discussion?

If the Mayor and Police Chief are committed to greater community involvement in solving crimes, this lack of connection between police and survivors seems a fatal obstacle. Where do they stand on this? Are they aware of this issue?

How does Chicago stand nationally on its clearance rate, using similar stats?

What’s the State Attorney’s take on the clearance figures?

Are there rings of cases that sit unsolved?

Can we see from inside the police and prosecutor’s office how they deal with the fact that seven out of 10 murders go unsolved?  Can’t we take the reporting inside these offices?

What else? What reporting have you done on this? What reporting have you seen on this?

Talk to me.

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz






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