Detective Yvonne Page is the face of the Chicago Police Department to many families who have lost loved ones to violence. Page seeks to comfort them and give them updates on police investigations. It’s a deeply personal mission for her. She’s constantly texting and calling and visiting with families and sharing their grief.
“One time I called a family, a mother in one specific case, and she said, ‘that’s odd that you called me. I’m standing in his room right now, and I was feeling overwhelmed,’” Page remembered.
But Page’s mission to ease their suffering is a nearly impossible task. Of the city’s 800 homicides in 2021 the department had solved only 179 cases by the end of the year, leaving more than 600 families still hurting for justice. The department’s failure to close murder cases leaves families scared for their safety as killers remain free, undermines public trust that murderers will face justice and convinces some citizens to seek retribution outside of the law, further inflaming violence in the city.
These are the dynamics Page and about 20 other police officers are trying to fight against in a new unit tasked with building relationships, and trust, with the families of murder victims.
“We knew that a lot of families, they didn’t have that communication that they would have liked to have had with the detectives,” Deputy Chief of Detectives Rahman Muhammad said. “The city heard about it, the superintendent heard about it and the chief of detectives heard about it. So with that, to try to solve that problem. They came up with this program.”
‘We put ourselves in their life’
For years, parents of murder victims have complained about a lack of communication and follow up from the detectives trying to catch their children’s killers.
The breakdown in communication has left many grieving mothers in Chicago feeling abandoned.
Page said over the past year she’s heard from “so many” people who feel “furious” or “frustrated” because they can’t get in touch with the detective working their case. Page acts as a go-between, taking the concerns to the detectives she works alongside, and reporting back to the families.
Often she’ll hear back that the detectives are waiting on DNA or ballistics to come back, or they need to find out the resolution of another, related case.
“So I’ll tell [the family] that and they say, ‘OK, thank you, you know, I’m just frustrated,’” Page said of her conversations with family members. “Sometimes I’ve been on the phone with one person for 45 minutes, just listening.”
Page said homicide detectives are just too busy to put in that kind of time with families.
“We’ve had so many [murder] cases in the past few years that [we] need a unit like this,” Page said.
For Page, the work is personal on multiple levels. She’s assigned to the West Side of the city. It’s where she grew up and she still has family and friends there.
And Page has personal experience with loss. Her nephew was murdered in 2018 in the western suburbs.
“I remember back then how I wanted to be treated, how I wanted the officers to call me detectives to call me.”
Page said there was a lack of communication, and it hurt.
“We can … make this situation a little bit more empathetic for the families of Chicago.”
‘What if they … destroy another family?’
The stakes of the work that Page and her fellow liaison officers are doing was made painfully clear at a family support group meeting late in 2021.
About 20 people, most of them grieving parents, meet weekly at a church building in the Little Village neighborhood.
One evening in November, the parents peppered Page and her partner with questions and complaints. The meeting was tense. Many of the mothers had lost sons in 2021. Others had been waiting years for justice.
All of them had complaints about the way detectives were handling their cases.
One mother, Catalina Andrade, said she was worried the people who killed her son, Miguel Rios, were “just gonna get away with it.”
“It’s very frustrating to think nobody’s been arrested, these pieces of crap, excuse my language, are out there,” Andrade said. “What if they do it again, they destroy another family like they did to me?”
The liaison officers are not just tasked with consoling grieving parents, or opening up lines of communication, they are trying to help preserve the legitimacy of the Chicago Police Department in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
“[The failure to solve murders] does give you that feeling like maybe I should, maybe I should watch myself,” said Norma Ambrosia.
Ambrosia said her son’s murder, and the lack of progress solving the case, had her worried about safety. She told the officers that she’s been telling her friends and loved ones to buy guns so they can protect themselves.
When you have information about a murder, and you give it to the police and it seems like nothing happens,where can you turn, she asked.
“Who do you tell if you can’t tell the police?”
‘I want justice for my kid’
One of the mothers at the meeting was Maria Soila Vega.
Her son Christopher Torrijos was shot to death on Sept. 16, 2021.
Soila Vega said she struggles doing anything at home, because everything reminds her of her son, the young man who loved her cooking and doted on her, texting or calling everyday.
“Everything reminds me of him, everything,” she said.
Soila Vega has videos on her phone of the last moments of her son’s life. Filmed by other people and taken from social media, they show him trying to break up a fight, being shoved and punched by two men. Then someone pulls out a gun and shoots Torrijos in the face.
On one of the videos the faces of Torrijos attackers are clear. Soila Vega carries the evidence around in her pocket but no arrests have been made.
“When I [saw] that video, I got angry and I want justice for my kid,” Soila Vega said.
A police spokesman did not answer why there has not been an arrest.
Mothers like Soila Vega want more communication from the detectives. They appreciate the contact and compassion from the liaison officers like Page. But what they really want is for their loved ones’ murders to be solved.
Page acknowledged that her help can only go so far if cases aren’t solved. But she said she knows the mountain of unsolved cases is not because of lack of effort by detectives.
“We can do what we can do, and we actually need the community’s help as well, in solving these cases,” Page said. “I’ve seen people work around the clock… on cases. So I know for a fact that the detectives are working past 100% on these cases. There will be some cases that may not be solved. And that’s unfortunate.”
Last year, Chicago detectives solved 400 murders, the most in 19 years.
“That says to me … that the detectives are out there doing their jobs,” Muhammad, the deputy chief, said.
However, most of the murders solved in 2021 occured in previous years, meaning the vast majority of 2021 homicides are still unsolved.
Muhammed said a key to solving more murders is getting more help from residents. He said that means building more trust between the police and the community.
He believes the family liaison unit will be part of doing that.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Christopher Torrijos’ last name.