CHICAGO — After April Campbell’s 16-year-old son was shot to death in May about four blocks from their home, she took it upon herself to help police find the killer.
Campbell, 49, disabled with a spinal injury, grabbed her walker and went door to door on the city’s South Side trying to piece together a motive and gather evidence.
She found witnesses and urged them to talk to police. She collected Facebook posts by people who seemed to claim credit for his killing. She tracked down a shop owner who had a security camera that might have recorded her son’s killer.
Campbell shared what she had found with detectives and then began calling to see whether they had followed up on the leads.
“I called back, no answer. I called back, he’s on vacation. I called back, he wasn’t in. I called back, he’s out in the field,” Campbell said. “It’s just, nothing. Nothing, you know?”
The death of Campbell’s only son, Randall Young, is part of Chicago’s growing body count of unsolved homicides. The city is on pace to have one of its deadliest years in two decades, and some residents blame police for perpetuating the violence by leaving killers on the streets.
Last year, Chicago police cleared homicides at one-third the rate they did 25 years ago — a time when they faced twice as many killings, according to a Washington Post analysis of police data obtained through a public records request.
The department has gone from having one of the best clearance rates nationwide to one of the worst.
In Chicago, police consider a homicide cleared for one of two reasons: a suspect has been charged, or the killer has been identified but cannot be prosecuted, which includes cases in which the suspect is dead or witnesses refuse to cooperate.
In 1991, Chicago police solved about 80 percent of all homicides in the city, compared with about 62 percent by police nationwide, according to data from the FBI and Chicago police. Since then, the national rate has remained fairly constant, but Chicago’s dropped below 26 percent last year, the worst clearance rate for police in any large city in the country, The Post analysis shows.
“Everything has just gone south in Chicago,” said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks unsolved homicides nationwide. “Everything has hit Chicago harder. Their murder rate is higher than other cities, and their failure to solve those murders is much worse.”
In the past 25 years, there have been more than 16,000 people killed in Chicago, reinforcing the city’s reputation as one of the nation’s most violent. In 1991, amid the scourge of crack cocaine, police logged 929 homicides and reported clearing 741 of those cases.
After peaking in the early 1990s, homicides in Chicago fell steadily each year for the next decade, and during much of the 2000s, the city saw fewer than 500 homicides a year. But the past two years have seen a surge in killings. As of Wednesday, 626 people had been killed this year in Chicago.
With each passing year, more killings have gone unsolved. As of August, Chicago police had cleared just 1 in 5 of the city’s homicides in 2016, The Post analysis shows. If homicide clearances continue their current downward trend, Chicago detectives would be solving just 1 in 10 killings citywide by 2023.
Chicago police and city officials did not dispute The Post’s findings.
But they said multiple factors explain the decline — noting, in particular, that the vast majority of the city’s homicides are gang- or drug-related, the types of killings in which witnesses may be reluctant to come forward. In the past, top department officials have publicly blamed the problem on a “no snitch” street code, saying that many residents refuse to cooperate with investigators.
Police officials also said advances in technology — such as DNA evidence and the proliferation of video recording — have forced detectives to meet a higher burden of proof before prosecutors will file criminal charges.
“Over the last 25 years, the nature of closing cases has certainly changed,” Chicago police spokesman Frank Giancamilli said in an email to The Post about the challenges that police face in solving homicides. He said, for example, that the increased use of guns to commit homicides has reduced physical evidence.
“This is all in addition to the reluctance of some witnesses and victims to provide information to detectives for fear of being identified,” he said.
In response to the upswing in violence, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to hire 1,000 police officers, including 200 detectives, in the next two years.
Crucial to solving homicides is community trust, said city officials and national policing experts.
But the Chicago Police Department, the second-largest municipal police force in the nation, with about 12,000 officers, has been roiled by corruption and scandal, including allegations of brutality against blacks and the 2010 conviction of a former police commander who led a torture ring over three decades. The disgraced commander, Jon Burge, was convicted of obstruction of justice and other crimes for denying in a civil lawsuit that he and detectives under his command burned, suffocated and used electrical current on more than 100 black men to compel their confessions, some of which later proved to be false.
The department has experienced frequent turnover in leadership: Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson is the city’s sixth top cop in the past 25 years. His predecessor resigned amid a national uproar following the release of a dash-cam video of the 2014 police-involved killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was holding a knife when he was shot 16 times by an officer.
The McDonald shooting — and the video’s release a year later — prompted renewed scrutiny of the Chicago Police Department and led the Justice Department to launch an investigation into whether city police have a pattern of civil rights violations.
“We will not succeed at turning back the rising tide of violence without changing and rebuilding critical relationships with residents, and especially with communities of color,” Emanuel said in a September speech on gun violence at the city’s Malcolm X College.
April Campbell’s son was killed in one of those communities, West Englewood, site of more than 650 homicides since 1991. The city is divided into 77 community areas, and of those, West Englewood is among the deadliest.
Police declined to discuss the killing of Campbell’s son or other open cases. “We don’t comment on open investigations and are actively pursuing leads,” Giancamilli said.
In the past 25 years, West Englewood has had the biggest drop in the percentage of homicides solved among the community areas that had at least 10 killings.
In 1991, West Englewood had 43 homicides, of which 40 were solved, according to The Post’s analysis. Of the 24 killings in West Englewood as of August, just two have been cleared.
“What happened to police work?” Campbell said, exasperated. “What happened to investigation?”
The three-square-mile, predominantly black community is home to about 35,000 residents. It’s a mix of modest single-family homes. The businesses are mostly off-brand grocery stores bookended by cellphone shops, beauty supply stores, currency exchanges and fast-food restaurants. The median income is a little more than half the national average.
A drive down a stretch of street named for Emmett Till takes one past hand-painted wooden signs affixed to trees: “NSA, No Shooting Allowed,” “My Day is Complete, I Heard a Child Laugh” and “No Shooting Zone.”
Many contend that the growing ledger of unsolved homicides here and across the city leaves killers free to commit more violence and leads to a feeling of general futility.
“It’s a cyclical tsunami, all stemming from, I think, a systemic disregard and disrespect for constituents that police take a pledge to serve and protect,” said state Sen. Jacqueline Y. Collins, whose district includes West Englewood.
Collins said there is a “lack of commitment and follow-up” by homicide detectives that is exacerbated by a lack of trust between the predominantly white police force and black residents in the highly segregated city. “Many of the homicides, if they go unsolved, perpetuate the violence because that individual will continue to prey on the community,” she said.
Amid the spike in homicides, some city officials and academics have suggested that officers have pulled back from policing for fear of public scrutiny.
“They don’t want to be a news story themselves . . . and it’s having an impact,” Emanuel told U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch at a meeting in Washington last year. The mayor told Lynch that officers had become “fetal.”
One critical step for police would be to hire more black and Hispanic detectives, said residents and local leaders in West Englewood.
“People like to see people who look like them. And they feel comfortable [with] people who look like them,” said Chicago Alderman David Moore, who lives in West Englewood. Moore noted that two-thirds of city residents are black or Latino but that most of the homicide detectives are white.
“Until we increase the number of African American detectives, this is going to continue to be an issue,” Moore said.
Police said that in recent months they have ramped up efforts to hire minorities and to better reflect the city’s racial composition.
As police brass vow to put more officers into the city’s most violent neighborhoods, police union officials said staffing levels and decisions by police leadership about deployment are among the reasons the department isn’t solving more homicides.
From the early 1990s through about 2003, the department had upward of 1,400 detectives; as of August, there were 868, said Dean C. Angelo Sr., president of the department’s largest union, which includes all detectives.
The department lost some detectives through a buyout — which began about six years ago and is being offered through June 2017 — that incentivized early retirement for health benefits.
The detectives who remained were overwhelmed, Angelo said, and some new ones lacked experience.
“Going into investigations after seven weeks of 40 hours’ worth of training at the academy, you don’t go upstairs to the detectives’ division and start working murders” as the lead or lone investigator, Angelo said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
In addition, the department in the mid-1990s moved its gang-crime specialists out of many of the South Side neighborhoods, weakening police intelligence and the relationship with residents, Angelo said. In the past, detectives would provide gang-crime specialists with information about the identities of alleged killers and would accompany detectives on interviews with the suspects, Angelo said.
To compensate for the gaps in intelligence, residents say some homicide detectives have pushed victims’ families to gather evidence and provide investigators with leads. Angelo did not dispute this.
Rosemary Palmer-Gant, 59, said detectives urged her to help find her 32-year-old son’s killer.
In June, William Tristen Palmer was found dead in the passenger side of a car near the family’s West Englewood home, shot multiple times.
“When my baby was murdered, I received phone calls from several people because we started getting information right away about who the killer was,” she said. Palmer-Gant said she and family friends turned over what she had to investigators, including links to the Facebook profile of the alleged killer.
“She was following up on every lead,” Palmer-Gant said of the detective. Then, she said, that detective was reassigned. The new investigators told her that they needed more information.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you go get one of the witnesses?’ ” Palmer-Gant recalls. She said she was stunned and told them: “You want me to go and knock on the door of the person who’s supposed to have something to do with my son’s murder?”
His killing remains unsolved.
Residents say, and police acknowledge, that some high-profile cases, such as the recent killing of Nykea Aldridge, the cousin of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade, receive more police attention and are more likely to be solved.
“It’s in the big-money part of the city. It’s someone with a name, or someone with a connection, and it’s the headline,” Angelo said of “heater cases,” or high-profile homicides. “And that moves manpower.”
Within two days of Aldridge’s slaying, which drew national media coverage, two suspects had been arrested and charged.
Several West Englewood residents said in interviews that people often know who committed less-prominent killings.
Some residents said the “no snitch” rule that police blame for unsolved homicides applies to gang members and not to most people in the community. But they said witnesses fear cooperating with police — even anonymously — because detectives can’t assure them that they will be protected, especially if they must face the accused in court.
“People are afraid because not all of the police, [but] some of them, say you’ll be protected. But then, you open your mouth and your house get shot up,” said Clarence Franklin, 31, a former gang member and now a youth advocate for the nonprofit I Grow Chicago who has lived in West Englewood since 1996. “Snitches get stitches.”
Kenneth Johnson is the new police commander in the district that includes West Englewood. One month into the job, he said that adding officers will help but that one of the critical problems is rebuilding trust with the community. He recently sat down for dinner to discuss concerns with area residents at the Peace House, a once-abandoned home in West Englewood that is now a community center.
“I believe we had a stronger relationship with the community. And I think that has to be fostered and reestablished in order to solve crimes,” Johnson said as he arrived for the dinner in October. “We can’t do our jobs, we can’t solve crimes, clear crimes without the cooperation of the public.”
After Randall Young’s death, Campbell said she feared that the high school freshman, who was known as a volunteer who fed the homeless, might be labeled a thug or gangbanger and that no one in the city would solve his case.
So, using her walker, Campbell said she canvassed West Englewood to piece together a possible motive. She said she learned that a brewing feud between block cliques — not gangs — had escalated into gunfire over turf.
Someone alerted her to a Facebook post from a person taking credit for the killing. It said: “Yeah, we merced somebody over there,” short-handing the word “mercenary” as street slang for getting killed. She shared that information with detectives.
Moments before her son was shot six times, he had been at a convenience store at a gas station in the neighborhood with several friends. One of them later told her that the person who killed her son may have been in the store as well. She called police and told them the store had a video camera.
She then contacted the store owner, who confirmed that he was recording that night but warned her that he typically kept the footage only one week.
Days later, she checked back with the detective.
“Did y’all go up there and get the tape?” she said she asked. “He was like, ‘No, we haven’t sent nobody yet.’ ”
Seven weeks passed before Campbell heard again from police: They had sent someone to the store, but it was too late. The video was gone, she said.
“Almost seven weeks later, he said, ‘We sent a team out there, and there was nothing there,’ ” Campbell recalls being told. “Really? Really?”
Campbell said she’s still hopeful that her son’s killing will be solved, but it’s been three months since she spoke with detectives. She recalled something one of the detectives had said to her.
“Once he told me, everybody look at them shows like ‘48 Hours.’ It’s not like that. That’s what he told me,” Campbell said. “I said I wish it was because at least they’re going out, trying.”
Lowery and Rich reported from Washington. Adeshina Emmanuel in Chicago contributed to this report.