Hundreds of Chicago residents joined KOCO organizers at the 6th annual We Walk For Her march. June 7th, 2023. Photo by Sebastian Hidalgo for City Bureau

Chicago’s missing person crisis is a Black issue. City Bureau and the Invisible Institute recently released a two-year investigation into how Chicago police handle missing person cases that shows the disproportionate impact on Black women and girls, how police have mistreated family members or delayed cases, and how poor police data is making the problem harder to solve. 

For this investigation, City Bureau and the Invisible Institute requested the Chicago Police Department’s missing person reports from 2000 to 2021, analyzed them and interviewed more than forty sources. Police missing persons data was cross referenced with underlying investigative documents, Chicago Police Department homicide data, medical examiner death data and news reports.

The analysis shows that of the approximately 340,000 cases in this time period, Black children make up fifty-seven percent of cases. Black girls between the ages of ten and twenty make up nearly one third of all missing person cases in the city, according to police data, despite comprising only two percent of the city population as of 2020. This racial disparity has remained relatively constant over the past two decades, even as cases overall have fallen. (Since 2000, missing person cases have fallen by about fifty percent and experts are unsure why.)

Latinx people make up fifteen percent of all cases, but experts believe this figure is underreported due to immigration enforcement concerns.

Despite this, media attention for white victims is still far more pervasive—so much so that “missing white woman syndrome” has become part of our lexicon. “A lot of families, they said, ‘Hey, we didn’t get any kind of attention. Nobody cared about my missing family members,’” says Damon Lamar Reed, a local artist who co-runs the Still Searching Project, a series of portraits of missing Black women and girls, with his wife, Nicole Reed.

Data graph: Data visualizations by Aïcha Camara and Trina Reynolds-Tyler.

In 2017, the Chicago City Council questioned police officials about the racial disparity in missing person cases, with at least one alderperson pushing for solutions to protect Black women and girls. Instead, “CPD brass were short on answers. In fact they deny there’s a problem,” according to a report by the Chicago Reader. When Sgt. Jeffrey Coleman was asked by an alderperson if police needed more resources to work on missing person cases, Coleman 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,” the Reader wrote. 

Young people do make up a large portion of missing person cases, in Chicago and beyond, according to police and FBI data—and these cases are often referred to as “runaways,” assuming that runaway people do not want to be found. In fact, the term “runaway” has become synonymous with police putting less effort into searching for a missing child, according to a USA Today review of fifty police procedural manuals across the country. (The analysis did not include Chicago.)

Community advocates say when police dismiss runaway cases, parents of missing children and adults don’t get the services they deserve. This attitude ignores the fact that Black women and girls are at higher risk for violent crime. Black girls are more likely to be victims of sex trafficking, making up more than half of all child prostitution arrests nationwide, according to 2019 FBI crime reporting data. The number of Black female homicide victims in Cook County from 2017 to 2022 was three times more than white and Latina victims combined, according to the medical examiner’s office. Black women make up more than half of all domestic violence survivors. Missingness is both a symptom and a cause of these risk factors.

“Redlining, racism—we literally create the landscape for murdering Black women and girls in Chicago,” says Beverly Reed-Scott, a former sex worker, journalist and community organizer who advocates on behalf of victims of gender-based violence. 

Six years ago, researcher and retired investigative journalist Thomas Hargrove identified fifty-one murdered women in Chicago as potential victims of a single serial killer. His theory led to a cascade of headlines and evening news stories, bringing the issue of missing persons to broader public attention and stepping up anxiety in Black neighborhoods where these cases were well known. Since then, police investigations have re-examined DNA evidence and determined it was unlikely all fifty-one women were murdered by the same person.

Local advocates close to the issue still believe there are multiple serial killers targeting Black women and girls. The victims identified by Hargrove were almost all Black women, often strangled or asphyxiated, their bodies discarded in South or West Side abandoned buildings, alleys, trash cans, lots and parks, as South Side Weekly reported. Many had histories of substance use and sex work.

Community members point out that the roots of the problem extend beyond violent individuals to complex societal problems like segregation and disinvestment, underfunded and inaccessible mental health services, intimate partner violence and domestic violence.

That’s why the new Illinois Task Force on Missing and Murdered Chicago Women, which convened for the first time in May, will focus on root causes for missingness and violence, and police practices, such as data collection, that impede their ability to solve these cases.

The task force has no budget, but its impact may lie in its recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly and Governor J.B. Pritzker, according to state Sen. Mattie Hunter, who along with state Rep. Kam Buckner is co-chairing the task force.

“Families keep asking for and waiting for answers, and they never receive answers from law enforcement,” says Hunter.

The task force hoped to rely on police data to help develop solutions. However, when City Bureau and the Invisible Institute analyzed CPD data from 2000 to 2021, it was difficult to come to definitive conclusions beyond looking at demographics.

For instance, police recorded 99.8 percent of all cases were closed and not criminal in nature, indicating the person was “likely found.” Missing person cases are not simply labeled “located” or “not located.” Interviews with multiple police sources indicated that even internally, it’s unclear if this means nearly every missing person in Chicago is found alive and well, and not the victim of any crime. CPD media affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

CPD data also claims that fewer than 300 missing person cases out of over 340,000 were reclassified as a crime, and only ten were reclassified as homicides. But reporters found at least eleven additional cases where individuals who were reported missing were later the subject of a homicide investigation—and where the original case remains labeled “non-criminal.”

If it’s true that police are not linking missing person cases with criminal investigations, “Well, that’s obviously bad record-keeping,” says Hargrove. “The mistakes that humans make with the data [are] the primary driver of this real problem everywhere. … You want those records to be linked [or] you can’t come up with meaningful analysis.” 

Tracy Siska, founder of the Chicago Justice Project, adds that errors in CPD data collection are common. He has found similar issues with data on how police officers respond to 911 calls. “It is an institutionalized problem,” he says. In 2022, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation revealed how half of murders considered “solved” by CPD did not result in an arrest, despite police officials publicly touting the high “clearance” number.

Chicago police data show clear racial discrepancies in missing person cases—but to understand why people go missing and how they are treated by police when they do, reporters dug much deeper to speak with current and former police officers, families of the missing and nationwide experts.

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This story is part of the Chicago Missing Persons project by City Bureau and the Invisible Institute, two nonprofit journalism organizations based in Chicago. Read the full investigation and see resources for families of the missing at

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