left for dead

Left for Dead: Chicago Officer Let Hit-and-Run Investigations Languish for Years Before Discipline, Records Show

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Newly obtained records reveal that a Chicago police officer was suspended for one day without pay after letting multiple cases drag on for years, including the investigation into a shocking 2016 fatal hit-and-run crash.

The van that struck and killed Frank Cruz in August 2016 as he was riding his bicycle on the city's West Side had a phone number and a company's name on its sides. Within four days, reports obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show that Chicago police received multiple tips, including the location of the abandoned van as well as the suspect's name and home address. Five years would pass before they made an arrest.

"I've talked with so many folks who are deeply, deeply frustrated with the situation of bike and pedestrian safety here, or really lack thereof, across the city. And we've seen way too many tragedies," said 47th Ward Ald. Matt Martin. "You should feel comfortable and confident that when you're getting around your community, or any other community in the city, on foot, on bike, that it's going to be safe."

Martin has been one of City Council's most vocal advocates for bike and pedestrian safety, and worked on matters of police accountability prior to his election.

"If you get a situation where you've got the make, model and license plate number, I think it's reasonable to assume that you can find out who, at the very least, owns that vehicle," he said. "For a lot of folks, and I’ve heard from folks personally about this, they feel that five years when you have certain types of information can seem very, very long. And so for me, that poses a lot of questions in my mind."

In the two months since NBC 5 Investigates’ “Left for Dead” series uncovering Chicago’s hit-and-run crisis, the cases that were unsolved then – despite major evidence like vehicles left behind – have still not seen an arrest, as the crisis has continued across the city. Alex Maragos reports.

NBC 5 Investigates filed nearly a dozen public records requests on this case alone to find out exactly what happened, obtaining surveillance video that clearly shows the van hit Cruz and flee the scene, as well as hundreds of pages of reports, internal CPD emails, disciplinary files and more.

One email sent by the lead investigator assigned to the case shows that she turned down an offer of help from the Cook County CrimeStoppers just days after the crash.

"Thank you for your interest in this case, but your assistance is not needed at the present time," the officer wrote, adding that police were "building a case to prosecute" Creshon Harris - the same suspect who was ultimately arrested in September 2021. Harris has pleaded not guilty to one count of failure to report an accident resulting in death.

NBC 5 Investigates also obtained more than a dozen emails that the officer's supervisors sent her in 2019 and 2020, reminding her to close out this and several other cases.

Newly obtained documents show she was reprimanded in February 2019 for not completing her investigations and "could not provide… justifiable explanations why."

Just a few months later, she was disciplined again, records show. That second time, her commander noted she had not demonstrated any work on some cases "literally for YEARS," the file reads.

"This chronic lateness has forced her supervisors to reassign numerous jobs going to trial and also take her out of rotation,” the commander wrote, calling these actions “unfair to her co-workers."

More than three years after the crash that killed Cruz, what was the punishment she received for letting her cases drag on and on? One day suspended without pay.

"What folks want to see is more accountability. They want to see these cases work through more quickly and efficiently," Martin said.

"If someone in any department, they're not doing their job appropriately, especially when colleagues, when supervisors have consistently flagged that for attention - we need to make sure that those individuals are held accountable and that we have processes going forward to ensure that that isn't happening so often," he added.

In one of the exceedingly rare Chicago hit-and-runs that actually saw an arrest, investigators not only had an image of the van that killed a man, it had a phone number painted on the side – but it still took five years for police to make an arrest. NBC 5 Investigates’ Phil Rogers reports.

Cruz's case was reassigned to another officer in November 2020 and the first investigator retired from the department three months later.

But the inaction on this and other cases unfolded as Chicago has seen the number of hit-and-runs steadily go up, and the number of arrests go down.

So far this year, Chicago has seen more than 21,000 hit-and-run crashes, leaving at least 17 people dead and over 2,800 injured, according to city data. Compare that to five years ago: by this date in 2017, the city had seen roughly 11,000 hit-and-runs, killing six people and injuring roughly 950 others.

Data analyzed by NBC 5 Investigates shows that Chicago police made arrests in just .3% of all hit-and-runs in 2021. The Los Angeles Police Department's most recent reported arrest rate was 8%.

CPD's arrest rate "seems like a number that's much, much lower than what we would want to see when we're talking about holding individuals accountable who have caused so much harm and so much tragedy," Martin said.

"We can be doing better. We have to be doing better with situations where, especially compared to our peer cities, we're, you know, a 10th of where they're at," he continued, adding, "That should really sound the alarm."

Neither the Chicago Police Department nor the first investigator on this case responded to requests for comment.

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