In a high-tech command center on the second floor of the Area 2 police headquarters at Belmont and Western, Chicago police detectives are involved in a needle-in-a-haystack effort to identify thousands of people responsible for looting hundreds of stores in the downtown area.
The assault on Michigan Avenue and other commercial areas on the Near North Side unfolded in the early morning hours Aug. 10, after erroneous reports of a juvenile being shot by Chicago police. Police say it was actually a 20-year-old man who allegedly fled and fired shots at pursuing officers.
By the time the mayhem ended, hundreds of businesses had been vandalized and looted, and over a dozen police officers were injured. And that incident followed a similar outbreak of violence following the shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
"It was just criminal acts," said Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan, referring to the outburst of violence in August. "There was no civil unrest attached to this. It was just crime."
- Go here to view looting videos
- Go here to view photos of individuals sought by police
- Go here to contact the CPD Looting Task Force
In the face of millions of dollars in damage and stolen merchandise, a special looting task force was set up to track down the perpetrators. But that was a tall order. Videos from merchants and CPD pod cameras showed thousands taking part in the mayhem.
"The team is extremely focused on what their job is to do," Deenihan told NBC 5. "And their job is to find these people and arrest them."
It isn't easy. For the last two months, detectives assigned to the task force have been gathering hundreds of surveillance videos from store owners, matching those up with city cameras in an effort to capture usable images of the perpetrators, and track their movements from store to store.
"We have to do our due diligence, and make sure that the people we're looking at were actually inside those locations," Sgt. Alex Wolinski told NBC 5. "This is old school, boots on the ground, detective work."
So far, 87 individuals have been charged, most of them on felony looting and burglary counts. But detectives concede that thousands more are out there to be found.
During a recent visit to the Area 3 command center, NBC 5 watched as five detectives pored over video images, pushing in to grab usable shots, and following those individuals to confirm they had taken part in actual thefts. In some of the videos the looters appear to know each other, in others, one person smashes the window of a mall or store, then hundreds surge inside.
"We are seeing teams of four or five individuals moving from location to location to location," Wolinski said. "But we also saw people [individuals] who probably saw an opportunity."
It's all an immense challenge, but police have received tremendous assistance from the victimized merchants.
"A lot of information has been shared," said Rich Gamble, chief of the Magnificent Mile Association. "Police have asked for video, photos, descriptions of products that have been lost - and a lot of that information has been shared."
But that assistance has gone beyond providing video. While investigators have been hesitant to talk about their tactics, prosecutors have revealed in court that police have found numerous looted items for sale on online sites. And they have arranged undercover buys where the alleged perpetrators have been arrested.
Gamble says many merchants have recognized their items online and notified police.
"Some of the merchandise still had tags on it," he said. "Some of the retailers here have radio frequency tags that are in their product, so they can tell the police where the product is."
For the merchants, many in high-end Michigan Avenue area stores, the assaults could not have come at a worse time. Some were just finding their footing after coronavirus-related closures, and the previous looting incidents in May. And Gamble notes many who work in those downtown businesses are residents of the very communities which have joined in calls for reform this year.
"It's not about profits, it's about people," Gamble said. "It's just devastating when a lot of people that work on the front lines are from the community and immigrant community that's crying out for justice to be done. Many other workers are in the hospitality business or the hotel business."
And, far from the cliche often heard in the media, police genuinely are asking for the public's help in identifying the perpetrators. Online, CPD has posted hundreds of so-called "seeking to identify" photos. To supplement those, detectives have also posted close-up videos of scores of the looting incidents.
"There were thousands of people down there, and their only goal was to loot these stores," Deenihan said. "They chose to do this, so they will have to suffer the consequences when they do get arrested."