Violence Is Focal Point of Indy Mayoral Race
Indiana Writers Group column for June 27 and thereafter
By Andrea Neal
INDIANAPOLIS — The FBI’s report that murders are up in big cities came as no surprise to Indianapolis residents who could have guessed as much reading one week of newspaper headlines: “Man fatally shot outside nightclub,” “Man dies after shooting near club,” “Two adults shot, one fatally,” “Police trying to ID body found in house.”
What’s surprising is that Indy’s 8 percent increase landed it in the company of much bigger cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. According to the 2006 Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report, cities of 1 million people or more were the only category to experience a significant rise in the murder rate from 2005 to 2006: 6.7 percent. Nationally, murders went up 1.3 percent. In non-metropolitan counties, they fell 11.9 percent.
The only other major Indiana city to see an increase was South Bend where murders rose less than a percent. The murder rate dropped in Evansville, Fort Wayne and Gary (although Gary’s experiencing a notable increase in 2007).
Faced with such statistics, Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson has an election year problem to address. “It is the issue,” said his underdog Republican challenger, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Greg Ballard. “I think the script is being written every day.”
Ballard points to several causes of rising violence, including too few police on the streets, confusion over who’s in charge since the merger of the Indianapolis Police and Marion County Sheriff’s departments and the dismantling by Peterson of his predecessor’s Front Porch Alliance. The alliance partnered government agencies with churches and neighborhood groups to address local concerns.
The police department merger, completed on Jan. 1, was “poorly executed,” Ballard said. Instead of improving crime control, it diluted accountability. “Who’s in charge of public safety?” Ballard asks. Is it the mayor, the sheriff, the City-County Council? He says he’s heard all three of those, plus other answers. In Ballard’s opinion, it should be the mayor. “As mayor, I would stand up on the first day and say, ‘I’m in charge of public safety.’ ” And he says he’d propose state legislation to put that in writing.
Michael T. Spears, chief of police for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said the mayor has an important role, but “the sheriff is the elected official primarily responsible for law enforcement in Marion County.”
Spears said consolidation has helped, not hurt, by eliminating unnecessary overhead and getting more officers on the street. Though the force is 112 positions down from what’s authorized, that’s being addressed with an aggressive schedule of recruiting and training, Spears said.
“It’s not fair to say crime is out of control, but certainly we have some challenges in front of us,” Spears said.
Ballard contends the city is more dangerous and considers the attack on a state senator earlier this year a prime example. “It’s no secret there’s not enough coverage out on the streets. If we know it, the criminals know it. I do think the criminals are getting very brazen.”
On Jan. 8, Sen. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, was mugged at a Northside pharmacy at the end of a legislative workday. Errington, now fully recovered from facial injuries she suffered, said she never thought of Indianapolis as a place to be afraid, and she still doesn’t. But she admitted the incident made her more cautious, and more interested in addressing the root causes of crime and violence.
Harold E. Pepinsky, professor of criminal justice at Indiana University in Bloomington, said the election-year debate is based on a flawed premise — the murder rate is rising. “I’m a skeptic about reported crime trends, including murder,” he said. “There’s no way to get legitimate numbers. I think we ought to give up on counting crime.”
Pepinsky said the city would be better off if the mayoral candidates talked about issues that affected more people. “Four people out of 800,000?” he said, referring to a week’s worth of newspaper headlines. “It’s still virtually certain that you wouldn’t have been killed in Indianapolis last week.”
It’s a downright radical point of view so don’t count on either candidate to buy into Pepinsky’s argument. If you want to be mayor of a big city, you have to take crime seriously. The question for Indianapolis based on reported trends: Is Mayor Peterson taking it seriously enough?
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at email@example.com.