AUSTIN — Last April, the FBI and Chicago Police teamed up to create a task force to investigate possible links between the deaths of more than 50 women in Chicago — most of whom were Black.
But as another year passes without answers, neighborhood leaders in one community hit hard by the string of unsolved murders has launched a campaign to put pressure on city and county officials to take these cases more seriously.
The Stop Taking Our Girls campaign was launched by the Austin-based Westside Health Authority to call upon the Chicago Police Department and State’s Attorney’s office to prioritize the loss of Black women’s lives to kidnapping, gangs, domestic violence, human trafficking and murder.
The campaign also aims to empower women in the community to protect themselves and each other by raising awareness and promoting street outreach to make the neighborhood safe for Black women.
“As far back as slavery, Black women have never got the proper respect or due when it comes to what people care about,” said Rosie Dawson of the Westside Health Authority, who is leading the campaign. “Black women are always being marginalized in every form. … We just feel like some of the elected officials and the police are not putting as much effort into [stopping] this.”
This is the latest effort to draw attention to a series of deaths dating back to 2001. In all 51 cases, the women were strangled.
The Murder Accountability Project, which uses data to investigate possible links between unsolved crimes, released a report on the Chicago deaths last year. They found the collection of killings had “characteristics suggestive of serial murder.”
The majority of the murder victims were Black women, with the oldest 58 and the youngest 18, according to the Murder Accountability Project. Their bodies have been found throughout the city but mostly on the South and West sides, largely in abandoned buildings or outside in alleys, garbage cans and vacant lots.
According to police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, CPD created a dedicated task force of detectives to find the people responsible for the murders. But so far, the task force hasn’t uncovered any evidence to suggest any link or pattern between the deaths.
“There is just to be clear, there is no evidence that we can point to that there is an orchestrated movement to kidnap women in Chicago. We just don’t have the evidence to prove that,” Guglielmi said.
Guglielmi said many of the women who disappeared or were murdered were involved in sex work “probably by force,” making the women more vulnerable to violence and harder to track down.
He disputed claims that the department was not prioritizing these murders and disappearances, saying that any case involving violent crime, murder or a missing person are a top priority for Chicago Police, regardless of where in the city the crime takes place.
In 2017 the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about police misconduct in Chicago, resulting in a court-ordered consent decree. A part of the report highlighted the city’s very low murder clearance rate of 29 percent, less than half the national average. Guglielmi said the department responded by increasing coordination with the state police to prioritize solving murder cases.
Roberta Logwood, one of the organizers behind the Stop Taking Our Girls campaign, said the extensive backlog of cases awaiting DNA testing is a huge problem.
“If they find a body… they have to wait for months before they can get a sample of the DNA to even determine who this person is,” Logwood said. “So we may actually have people that’s missing that are actually found already, but the families don’t know it yet because the DNA is delayed.”
Guglielmi said it is no secret that the city has a greater demand for DNA testing than it can manage, in part because the city government doesn’t have the ability to process DNA on its own, so it relies on the state. He said in some cases, it can take upwards of a year to verify DNA evidence, depending on the circumstances.
“If we had the resources to develop a lab for Chicago, we would,” he said. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars.”
But James Coleman, community wellness director for Westside Health Authority, said that means the state and city need to seek out this funding.
“They prioritize their resources,” Coleman said. “So they haven’t prioritized the funding to do DNA testing, not just for missing girls but with everything else.”
In the coming months, the Stop Taking Our Girls Campaign will hold a series of public meetings to build awareness and get community support in solving the cold cases.
The group also plans to offer self-defense lessons and empower South and West side residents to speak up when they see things happening on their blocks.
“We’re hoping to put the red light on the city and the police force so they can know we’re watching,” Dawson said. “We’re here to speak up for our community.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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