Nearly a year after a Reader investigation revealed that African-Americans make up two-thirds of the Chicago’s open missing persons cases, and that almost a fourth of all missing persons are black girls between the ages of 11 and 21, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee held a hearing to question police officials on the disparity. CPD deputy chief James Jones, commander Thomas Lemmer, and sergeant Jeffrey Coleman were short on explanations, however, and didn’t seem interested in taking up aldermen on offers of help and resources for the department’s missing persons operations.
Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer proposed a resolution to inquire about what’s driving the missing persons trends. He was particularly interested in what the city could do to protect young black women, who are at disproportionate risk of falling victim to sex trafficking according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
But the CPD brass were short on answers. In fact they deny there’s a problem. Jones opened his testimony to the sparsely attended committee meeting by challenging some experts’ claims the Reader reported last year. He stated that the amount of media coverage a missing person’s case receives doesn’t correlate with law enforcement’s success in finding them—something disputed by missing persons advocacy organizations across the country. Jones also rejected claims that CPD expends less effort on finding missing African-Americans.
“The Chicago Police Department takes each missing person report seriously and investigates each one consistently across race and gender,” Jones said. “We also want to dispel the idea that missing persons efforts disfavor African-Americans.”
The deputy chief did confirm, however, that black youth make up the majority of open missing persons cases in the city, but didn’t offer any insight into what’s causing black youth to go missing at higher rates than their white or Latinx counterparts.
Jones offered some glowing statistics instead, reporting that while 77 percent of the 300,000 missing persons cases opened between 2000 and 2016 were for juveniles, “the child returned or was found in 99.9 percent of those cases.” He added that in the first six months of 2017, the department was able to close 97 percent of juvenile missing cases.
He didn’t share case closure rates for adults, implying that they are trickier to deal with because those over 18 “are free to travel as they please without needing to check in or being compelled to return home.”
During the Q&A the issue of runaways was brought up by 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano, a former cop, who opted for a leading question: “Your biggest problem are youth or teenagers who are missing or deemed missing but are runaways and don’t want to be found—is that correct?”
Jones concurred, and Commander Lemmer chimed in that between January 2013 and this month CPD identified only 25 missing persons under the age of 17 who were connected with sex trafficking—a tiny proportion of the overall missing juvenile caseload. No one in the chamber challenged the alderman or the police officials on the notion that most missing youth in Chicago “don’t want to be found.”
When Sawyer asked the officials whether the police department could use any further resources to help their efforts to find missing persons, sergeant Jeffrey Coleman, who oversees missing persons investigations in Area South, said only that it’s important to communicate to the city’s parents that they must stay aware of their children’s activities and whereabouts.
In short, per CPD, there is no problem with the city’s missing persons caseload or the department’s handling thereof. But after the 25-minute hearing, Sawyer said he wasn’t quite satisfied.
“I know they sound like they have a handle on it, but when there’s still a disparate amount of young black women being discovered missing and oftentimes due to some unsavory circumstances, we need to get them back to their homes or find out why they ran in the first place,” he said.
Sawyer added that he didn’t buy the idea that there are lots of runaway kids out there who just don’t “want” to be found. “There’s some underlying issues that usually force someone to make that kind of tough decision—that they would rather be on the street than stay at their home. We need to find out why is that.”
Though there aren’t any follow-up hearings on the agenda, Sawyer indicated that there’s more for the City Council to do. “We need to find out why children, young African-American children, are running away,” he said. “[The police’s] job is to get them back, I get that. So maybe we need to be talking to someone else.”
In the last 24 hours, four teens were reported missing by the police department: Jayda Moore, a 17-year-old African-American girl last seen in South Austin; Gisell Fierros, a 12-year-old Latina girl from Humboldt Park; Brian Llamas, a 15-year-old Latino boy from Belmont Cragin, and Tamera Wright, a 14-year-old African-American girl last seen in Auburn Gresham.