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Expressway shootings on rise in Chicago area

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Denise Huguelet and Tamara Clayton never met. But their lives, dedicated to the service of others, were as similar as their premature, unnecessary deaths: Both women were slain while traveling on Chicago-area interstates.

Huguelet, 67, a retired special education teacher and mother of five, was fatally shot as she traveled from a White Sox game to her Orland Park home on the Dan Ryan Expressway on Aug. 17.

Clayton, 55, who had a daughter who is to be married this Labor Day weekend, was shot and killed in 2019 as she drove on Interstate 57 near Cicero Avenue to her job with the U.S. Postal Service, said her sister, Alma Hill. She intentionally avoided the Dan Ryan because she was afraid of being shot.

And the week after Huguelet’s killing, a man was fatally shot on the Eisenhower Expressway and a passenger in his vehicle also died when it crashed. There was a third nonfatal shooting Monday that left two men wounded.

The spate of shootings shines a fresh and brutal light on the perennial problem of violence on Chicago’s expressways, an extension of the gun violence that has ravaged the city’s disinvested South and West sides for decades. And shootings on area expressways have risen each year since 2018, spurring Chicagoans to clamor for solutions.

After Clayton’s death, Hill became a driving force behind the Tamara Clayton Expressway Act, which allocated $12.5 million for Illinois State Police to place high-resolution cameras along area roadways in an effort to deter and detect the kind of shootings that killed the two women and others. Installation of the high-speed license plate-reading cameras began last week.

Experts say the program should give investigators a trove of new information with which to investigate. But civil liberties advocates caution that such technology — especially as law enforcement agencies increasingly use it — should be regulated by the state. Unlike other states, Illinois does not have an overarching statute that governs the use of license plate data.

Yet even as programs are implemented and policy debates take shape, the families who have lost loved ones during what should have been a regular commute are left with grief and faith rather than answers and arrests.

“So many people, after a tragic event like this, the anger crushes their soul — understandably,” Michael Huguelet said Thursday, as he and his two sons traveled along the Dan Ryan — the same road on which Denise Huguelet was killed ― to file her will in Chicago. “I can’t let the anger crush my soul.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced new safety protocols that also include a renewed statewide mandate for masks to be worn indoors.

Shootings on expressways rising

In the first nine months of 2021, shootings on expressways outpaced those in all of 2020 with 159 gun attacks, according to data from the Illinois State Police. Last year, the area saw 128 such shootings, more than double that of 2019.

Though the surging numbers of the past two years have coincided with an overall spike in city shootings, the expressway attacks have increased more rapidly.

Shootings throughout all of Chicago this year have risen by about 10% over last year, according to Chicago Police Department data, while expressway shootings during the first nine months of the year have already increased more than 24% over the whole of last year.

There were 52 expressway shootings in 2019 and 43 in 2018.

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A license plate-reading camera is shown Aug. 26, 2021, at the Illinois State Police office in Downers Grove.

“I think it’s an extension of precisely the horrific problems these neighborhoods have,” said Wesley Skogan, emeritus professor of political science at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Skogan noted that the expressways with the most shootings — usually the Dan Ryan and the Eisenhower — run through historically high-crime areas, in some cases linking different cliques or gangs.

The highest number of expressway shootings in the past two years happened on the Dan Ryan, with 36 in 2020 and 51 in 2021. The Eisenhower saw the second most in 2021, with 35.

Officials with the Illinois State Police, which has jurisdiction over state highways, said expressway shootings are often more difficult to investigate.

“(Expressway shootings) are a challenge and are a little bit different than your typical municipality crime. ... We don’t have people sitting on the porches, we (can’t) ring doorbells, we don’t have neighborhoods that we need to canvas,” said Maj. Matt Gainer, investigative commander for the north region of Illinois.

‘Crystal clear’ license plate photos

State police investigators hope the new license plate readers will help close cases and create more accountability for the highway shootings, which have low clearance rates.

“I’m so glad the cameras are going up but it’s more that needs to happen,” Hill said. “It’s a tool — one I’m so grateful for — but it’s not magic. Are they going to invest in the manpower to monitor the cameras? Are they going to dispatch police in real-time to investigate? I’d like to see, you know the Amber Alerts? I’d like to see them notify the public about danger in real-time.”

Gainer said the plate readers will aid responders during real-time incidents on the interstate and help investigators follow up on violent expressway crimes.

Though cities and states have spent millions on the technology, few studies have been done to evaluate whether license plate readers reduce crime and improve investigatory outcomes for serious crimes.

A 2019 study published in Police Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal, that sought to answer that question found that the license plate readers may “have contributed to modest improvements in case closures for auto theft and robbery,” the two areas the study mostly focused on.

The study, though, cautions that the evidence is “tentative but not conclusive,” and called for more research.

“Given the amount of resources spent on (plate readers), there is much need to build a stronger and broader evidence base ... to inform police decisions about LPR adoption and uses,” the study said.

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Vehicles drive along the Dan Ryan Expressway near West 31st Street on Aug. 25, 2021 in Chicago.

When asked whether the plate readers would be relevant in investigating shootings perpetrated by someone in a stolen car, a state police spokeswoman said police can still utilize the tool in those cases, but declined to say how.

“We don’t want to give individuals suspected of auto theft too much information on any investigative techniques on how we work an investigation,” said Illinois State Police Sgt. Delila Garcia.

State police plan to install about 300 cameras across all Cook County interstates over about a year, Gainer said. He described the quality of the images as “crystal clear” and said police have been able to accurately read the license plate number “in a little over 99%” of cases from already-installed cameras.

Skogan said that if set up correctly, one license plate reader can snap photos of hundreds of plates an hour and use a fiber optic cable to create a database in near real time, though he noted that the $12.5 million budget for the project is small. He said the license plate readers should give authorities a wealth of new information that presumably would allow them to raise the clearance rate of highway shootings.

“You have the plate. That’s key,” he said. “That has a lot of value.”

Privacy concerns

Groups tracking law enforcement use of surveillance programs indicate that license plate readers are growing more ubiquitous. Suburban and other smaller law enforcement agencies have also increasingly been using the technology, with more than two dozen Chicago-area agencies using them to scan license plates, according to one survey by the nonprofit watchdog group MuckRock.

Critics also point out that police agencies, and the companies that provide the technology, are able to gather massive amounts of data on mostly law-abiding citizens, with the percentage of vehicles involved in criminal activity a small fraction of the data set.

In Illinois, though, there is no regulation of how long law enforcement agencies can keep the license plate information, or how they can use it.

In the case of the expressway cameras, Illinois State Police said it will only keep the data for 90 days if it is not connected to a crime, though they are not required by statute to do so. The Tamara Clayton Expressway Act that provides the funding does mandate that the agency not use the readers for petty offenses.

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Alma Hill with a photo showing her sister Tamara Clayton with her daughter at her Monee home on July 17, 2020. After Clayton was shot and killed on Interstate 57 in 2019, Hill pushed for more high-definition cameras on area expressways.

At least 16 states have legislation that regulates use of plate readers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the states restrict how long law enforcement can keep data from the readers.

In California, the highway patrol cannot keep data from a license plate reader longer than 60 days if no felony case arises from the information, according to the NCSL. The agency is also required to give reports to the legislature about how the technology is being used. Nebraska requires agencies to create a policy governing their use of plate readers and send an annual report to the state.

“With any of these technologies, whatever efficacy they have for the actual interdiction of crime, they do come with some extra privacy burdens,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

In 2015, lawmakers proposed a bill that would have required agencies to destroy data from plate readers after 30 days if the information wasn’t used in an ongoing case, but the bill did not pass.

State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said lawmakers were not able to agree on the appropriate time frame to allow agencies to keep the license plate data.

“We’re not saying don’t use it. We’re saying, let’s put restrictions in place ... to make sure people’s civil and constitutional liberties are protected,” Williams said.

Sponsors of the bill believed police shouldn’t be able to keep the data indefinitely, while police agencies argued that they may need the data in the future, even if a criminal case didn’t materialize within the first 30 or 60 days.

Williams said there might be an appetite to revisit the issue.

“In the big picture, as technology develops, we need to ensure the law keeps up,” she said.

Hill, Tamara Clayton’s sister, said someone’s privacy shouldn’t be much of a factor considering the stakes are literally life and death for others.

“I think we need to regain our humanity a little bit and put it in perspective,” Hill said. “It’s kind of funny her name is out there because my sister was not a person who wanted to be in the limelight. If it will stop one person from the pain this violence causes, I think she’d be OK with it, though.”

‘We’re connected in that way’

Huguelet and Clayton shared a selfless nature, with Clayton taking care of her ailing, now-late mother and Huguelet giving time, energy and money to multiple charities and nonprofits.

At her funeral, Huguelet’s sons spoke of her dedication to serving others. She worked for 24 years as a special-education teacher at Central Middle School in Evergreen Park, overseeing students with the most significant disabilities.

The two women are also joined by their faith, which has allowed Michael Huguelet to forgive the person who killed his wife of 45 years, even though no one has been charged.

“I’m a Christian and so I guess if they ever catch these guys, they’ll have their civic penalty. But I’m not looking for revenge and it’s not going to change the outcome,” he said.

When Hill heard about Huguelet’s death, she said she was overtaken by emotion and immediately began praying for the other woman’s family.

“I had a breakdown when I heard about the teacher. … When you feel this way you think, no one else should know what this feels like. Unfortunately, we’re connected in that way — I know what it feels like,” Hill said.

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