Michael Mealer, commander of evidence recoverey for the Chicago police… (lenny gilmore / )
For the firearms behind some of Chicago's most violent crimes, death row is a West Side warehouse that smells of weed and gunmetal. About 80,000 of the illegal weapons that the Chicago Police Department has seized sit there packed into row after row of shelves, meticulously labeled and guarded by officers who wait for the green light to destroy them.
The guns, almost all of which were seized by the department during criminal arrests, range from the common handgun to military rifles to “street sweepers”—guns with oversized, rotary magazines and so much destructive power the National Firearms Act places them in the same category as grenades, mines and poison gas.
The handguns are stored in white paper bags and packed into shelves that stretch halfway through the warehouse and are protected by floor-to-ceiling chain-link cages. The larger guns are shelved with their butts facing out, and, similar to library books, all are labeled, dated and bar-coded. Many are also tagged with red “evidence” tape, meaning they may be checked out by officers and brought to court to be used as evidence in ongoing criminal cases, from home-invasions to homicides.
Chicago's high crime rates can be hard to disentangle from its struggle to tamp down on the illegal possession of guns, which police recover by the thousands every year. In recent months, Mayor Emanuel has urged the state legislature to impose tougher sentences for illegal firearm possession, in hopes that a stricter law would reduce crime and keep repeat offenders off the streets. But Department of Corrections officials have raised concerns that the new law would require the prison system to accommodate thousands more inmates, at a cost of $700 million.
Beyond the expanse of shelves, the first thing a visitor to the gun vault would likely notice is the unmistakable smell of marijuana, which on a humid day can even drift to the parking lot outside.
“You can tell by the smell what else we store here,” Commander Michael Mealer said as he stepped off the elevator onto the warehouse floor.
As the commander of Evidence and Recovered Property (ERPS for short), Mealer oversees the storage of all of the seized items “that could fit into a bread-basket.” The guns are kept in the highest-security storage section, next door to the narcotics.
And that section reeks—so strongly, the employees run industrial fans through the walkways to keep the stale air circulating.
Whether the criminal evidence is a shotgun or some weed, it cannot be destroyed until a case is closed—and some of the contraband has been sitting there since 1999, when the department moved its storage to the former-factory space after outgrowing its old location. Some of the oldest guns have been in department storage since the 1960s according to Mealer, a long-time officer who has served as an intelligence unit commander and as the Albany Park district commander.
Now, officials said, the vault is poised to outgrow itself again, and they are scouting out a new storage location.
“Do the math; the input is going to be higher than the output,” Mealer said. “But the goal is always to get rid of the weapons we can get rid of. ”
Last month the department passed the 5,000 gun milestone for the year, which is on-pace with last year’s gun-seizure rate, according to police spokesman Adam Collins.
“When I first got here, I was like, 'Oh my God, it’s a lot,' ” said Lt. Liz Glatz, who has worked in the gun vault for past two years. “And we continue to take in more every day.”
The strangest item Glatz has come across? “A gold-plated Thompson,” she said, which allegedly belonged to a wealthy drug dealer. Other gun vault curiosities include two trash bins filled with plastic and metal fake guns, some of which are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The guns come from across the city; some were likely used to hold up stores, to maintain gang activity and to kill people. Some were seized during massive drug busts, and others came from officers stopping people on the street.
“Street stops are our bread-and-butter for finding handguns,” Mealer said.
And some of the older guns, collectors items and war relics, were likely acquired by criminals during home burglaries.
“If you don’t secure your weapons, in burglaries they’re not going to take your flat screen TV, they’re going to take your guns,” Mealer said. “You’re not going to kill a person with a flat-screen TV.”
But regardless of their origins or the crimes they abetted, the vast majority of illegal guns will eventually meet the same fate, Mealer said. Beyond a select few that can be returned to their owners, the guns will be melted down or crushed and shredded into one-inch scraps in facilities outside the city.
“We release very few guns,” he said.
Before this year, the department sent guns out of the city to be melted down in batches of several hundred a couple times a month. But an updated ordinance will soon allow the department to begin shredding the guns instead. Mealer said shredding would be more efficient and cost-effective, but the process is on hold until the city finds a shredder facility.
In the meantime, the department is auditing the inventory.
“It’s a lot of guns," Mealer said, surveying the room. "Like everything else, the more you have, the more storage you need."
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