At an emotionally charged hearing Saturday on Chicago's South Side, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush grilled top law enforcement officials about whether they respond forcefully enough when African-American and Hispanic children are reported missing or potentially abducted.
"I want to find out if there is a double standard and if there is, we want to erase it right here, right now," Rush told a panel of officials from the Chicago police, FBI and other agencies at the three-hour hearing.
Rush convened the Emergency Summit on Missing & Exploited Children in response to a recent Tribune investigative series that examined 530 attempted child abductions by strangers in the city and suburbs since 2008. The Tribune found that, although few child abductors were successfully prosecuted, the arrest rate was roughly 20 times higher in Chicago's majority white census tracts than for African-American communities.
"Something is wrong with this picture," Rush said.
Anguished, angry testimony came from the families of victims in several of Chicago's most high-profile cases of missing and abducted children from the last decade.
"I think in the black neighborhoods, when black kids come up missing, they (the police) feel, 'She just ran away,'" said Rose Starnes, the mother of 15-year-old Yasmin Acree, who disappeared from her West Side home in January 2008, and has not been seen since. Wiping away tears, Starnes lashed out at police for initially suggesting that the Austin Polytechnical Academy honor student was a runaway, and also for ignoring a cut padlock and other evidence of forced entry into her home.
Police Assistant Superintendent James Jackson said emphatically that race played no role in the department's investigations. But Jackson acknowledged that some African-American families felt slighted by police in these cases, and said the department would examine how the officers interacted with victims' families. "There's a problem," he said. "This is not the message we want to be putting out there."
Robert Hargesheimer, commander of the police youth investigations section, added the unsolved cases of missing and abducted children "haunt law enforcement every day. ... There's no one who can be any more frustrated that I am."
The cooperation of parents and communities is critical to protecting youth and solving missing children cases, said FBI Special Agent Sean Burke. "We need your assistance," Burke said.
Reacting to the Tribune's series, the Cook County state's attorney's office said at the meeting that they are examining ways to strengthen Illinois' child abduction laws.
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, said she hopes to sponsor a reform bill, but added that legislation alone wouldn't address the apparent racial disparities in arrests and case outcomes. "I'm not happy with some of the responses" from law enforcement, Collins told the gathering.
Rush said he also is considering federal legislation, and emphasized that Saturday's summit was only the first of several hearings and workshops to "arm the communities with information. ... We want to be proactive to protect our children," Rush said. "This is not just a one-time event."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times