With Gov. J.B. Pritzker taking heat on crime, his state police announce arrests in expressway shootings

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As Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker tries to fend off Republican rivals who accuse him of being soft on crime, his office is announcing the arrests of about a dozen people in the last several months for crimes on Chicago-area expressways.

The rise in violent crime afflicting parts of the state has not spared the city’s expressways, which are patrolled by Illinois State Police. There were roughly 260 shootings on Chicago-area expressways in 2021, about double the number on those roadways the previous year, according to the state police.

Those arrested for expressway-related felonies since October face charges ranging from first-degree murder to attempted murder to fleeing a law enforcement officer. Warrants have been issued in other cases.

In one of the cases, state police arrested a 31-year-old man on Jan. 31 on a murder charge in the fatal shooting of a 37-year-old man almost exactly a year earlier on the Kennedy Expressway near Division Street. Also last month, state police arrested a 19-year-old man on an attempted murder charge for the December shooting of a 32-year-old man on the Bishop Ford Freeway in the south suburbs.

A news conference is scheduled for Monday to discuss the arrests.

In an interview with the Tribune on Friday, state police Director Brendan Kelly described why catching the culprits in expressway shootings is often difficult.

“The crime scene itself is moving at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour down the expressway,” said Kelly, who was tapped by Pritzker in 2019 to lead the state police. “The evidence is more like a debris field than it is at a typical crime scene on a street corner or in a parking lot, wherever the case may be, within a home or within a business, it is spread out all over the place.”

“And then you have people literally driving through the crime scene repeatedly until law enforcement is able to get there and secure the scene,” Kelly said. “People that are the victims of these cases may not be able to identify what they saw. So, all that is moving very quickly.”

Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to take on Pritzker in November have all used variations of tough-on-crime rhetoric, while the governor has mostly promoted his administration’s efforts to address root causes of violence.

Those efforts include an allocation in the budget Pritzker proposed last week of $240 million for violence prevention organizations across the state that specialize in street conflict mediation, and connect at-risk individuals with mental health providers, job training and other social services.

Butin recent public appearances, the governor has stepped up his support of law enforcement’s role in tackling crime. “If we want to reduce crime, we have to solve crimes,” Pritzker declared during his annual State of the State and budget address last week in Springfield.

He noted in his remarks how his proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 would increase the number of state police forensic scientists and evidence technicians. He also talked about the building of “a new, state-of-the-art” crime lab near Joliet and another one opening in Decatur. Pritzker also wants “to add the largest number of state police cadets in any single year.”

In tackling the problem of expressway crime, state police investigators have become increasingly reliant on surveillance footage from cameras mounted along the roadways.

Since Pritzker took office, the state allocated $12.5 million for the state police to place high-resolution cameras along the Cook County expressways, equipping them with license plate-reading technology. So far, according to Kelly, about 100 have been installed, with about 200 more to go.

“That license plate-reading technology, along with the air operations that we have, along with the additional trooper presence that we have … that’s what’s helping us to be able to be more effective from a criminal investigative standpoint,” said Kelly.

But some observers have been skeptical of the technology, as scant research exists to gauge how successful it is in helping reducing crime. There are also concerns among civil libertarians about whether the technology could be an invasion of privacy.

“You ought to have a privacy policy that is … available to the public, so they know how the data is going to be used, and how long it’s going to be stored,” Edwin Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said Friday.

State police officials have said the agency will keep the data collected from cameras for only about three months if it’s not connected to a crime, but the agency isn’t required to do that by law. The expressway camera law that provides the $12.5 million, however, prohibits state police from using the monitors to go after petty offenses.

Yohnka said independent reports should be issued annually to look at the “efficiency and the effectiveness” of the license plate readers. He also said the public should have some input as to where the surveillance system is installed because “in a free society, people ought to be able to have input into what level of surveillance they’re going to have in their neighborhood.”

Kelly said he thinks the extra cameras are essential to solving expressway-related crimes since criminals have been aware for years that surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in neighborhoods — particularly in parts of Chicago’s South and West sides that see a lot of shootings.

The expressways have become “an easy escape route if you were going to commit that type of violence,” Kelly said.