Some families of the missing say that police closed their case without confirming that their loved ones had returned home safely. (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

From misclassifying some missing people as “located” and some homicide cases as “non-criminal,” poor police data will make it difficult for Chicago to effectively tackle the missing persons issue, experts say.

By Trina Reynolds-Tyler, Invisible Institute, and Sarah Conway, City Bureau

November 14, 2023

On June 7, 2018, two weeks after her daughter Shantieya Smith walked out her front door, Latonya Moore remembers sitting on her porch when a neighbor’s son came with a message: “My mom says you need to come down.” Moore took off, walking less than two blocks down her tree-lined street to see people gathering around a bungalow with police crime scene tape on its front fence.

A bad odor emanated from its dilapidated garage.

As Moore made her way into the crowd, she heard someone say that a body was found — a woman with red hair. Somebody began to scream, “Nay Nay,” her daughter’s nickname.

Gasping for air, Moore collapsed onto the sidewalk in grief. “They ended up having to call the paramedics because I had an anxiety attack,” Moore remembers. “I couldn’t breathe.”

A few days later at a medical examiner’s office near Douglass Park, Moore was shown one of Smith’s tattoos on a screen: her nephew’s name written in cursive on her bicep. The remains were too badly decomposed — weighing only 57 pounds — for Moore to view the body itself. The medical examiner would eventually rule Smith’s death a “homicide by unspecified means.”

As Moore grieved the loss of her daughter, police reports show that a detective on the case requested Smith’s missing person case be closed with a “non-criminal” classification, and his supervisor approved.

Between 2000 and 2021, the Chicago Police Department claims that just over 343,000 (99.8%) of missing person cases were “closed non-criminal,” meaning the person was “likely found” and the case was “not criminal in nature.” In fact, police data from this time period identifies less than 300 missing person cases that were reclassified as a crime and only 10 of these as homicides.

This does not include Smith’s case, because police labeled her case “non-criminal,” then opened a separate police investigation into her death, which is not linked to her original case in CPD’s missing persons data.

“If you’re trying to understand how many of the missing person cases within your city are homicides, obviously you should keep accurate records about that,” says Matthew Wolfe, a journalist and doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University, where he studies police missing persons data across the country.

Inaccurate data makes it difficult for police or public officials to fully understand and effectively tackle the missing persons problem in Chicago, according to Wolfe, Thomas Hargrove and Tracy Siska, all researchers who specialize in police data.

City Bureau and the Invisible Institute identified an additional 11 cases that were miscategorized as “closed non-criminal” in the missing persons data despite being likely homicides — more than doubling the number of official homicides in missing persons police data. In some of these hidden cases, a person was later charged or convicted of a crime related to the missing person’s death, or it was determined that the missing person faced a violent death as a result of strangulation, shooting or stabbing.

Reporters found these cases by searching for murder charges and news stories and cross-referencing the names of the missing; it’s unclear how many missing person cases that never resulted in murder charges or media coverage were miscategorized in this manner. In Chicago, police arrest somebody in just 24% of all homicide cases (though the agency is under fire for claiming to “clear” 48% of homicide cases in 2021, according to a CBS Chicago report).

While in some cases this may be due to clerical error, City Bureau and the Invisible Institute also identified four cases where police actually wrote, in their own words, that the missing person was returned home safely, even though they were not.

In the case of 61-year-old Linzene Franklin, who was reported missing in 2011, a detective claimed in a 2014 Chicago police report that she had returned home without incident. In reality, Franklin had died of a heart attack at a North Side bus stop in 2013 and was buried as an unidentified person. Her body remained in a South Side Roman Catholic cemetery for nine years before Cook County deputies connected the two cases and alerted Franklin’s family. Franklin’s daughter told Cook County deputies she hadn’t seen her mother since 2011.

These cases lead to important and unanswered questions: How many people in the city of Chicago remain missing, despite officers concluding that the person had “returned home”?

The Cook County team closed Franklin’s case in 2022 after matching her DNA with a family member. Commander Jason Moran, who leads the team, confirmed in an interview with City Bureau and the Invisible Institute that the Chicago Police Department had prematurely closed the case.

After 16-year-old Desiree Robinson ran away from her grandparents’ home in late November 2016, detectives reported in a police investigative document several weeks later, “the missing has been located. No indication the missing was a victim/offender.” However, her grandfather Dennis Treadwell says Robinson never returned to his home, nor was he contacted by police about her whereabouts prior to her murder. On Christmas Eve that same year, a man murdered Robinson, who had been the victim of sex trafficking on, after she refused to perform a sex act for free in a garage in Markham, Illinois, while her sex trafficker slept outside in a parked car, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report.

A police spokesperson says in a September statement, “The Chicago Police Department takes these cases seriously in hopes that the missing individuals are able to return home to their loved ones safely. Each missing persons case is thoroughly investigated based on the evidence available. We will continue to investigate all open missing person cases as we work to locate those who are missing.”

These cases lead to important and unanswered questions: How many people in the city of Chicago remain missing, despite officers concluding that the person had “returned home”? How many are victims of violent crimes, with their bodies never found or identified by the very department tasked with protecting and serving them? And while this investigation focuses on missing persons who were killed, how many more cases included terrible crimes that left the victim alive and traumatized?