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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

‘I am the hope’: City leaders, community members unite to curb violence

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If you drive east on Troy and Keystone avenues, you’ll see two billboards outside the Marion County Child Advocacy Center. Created by young adults involved in VOICES Corp. — a nonprofit organization pairing young adults with civic resources and employment opportunities — one billboard reads “We are powerful. Beautiful. Family. Human.” The other highlights the root causes of violence, including trauma, lack of resources and poverty.

Shaniece Brown, 17, knows all too well the impact violence can have on someone’s life. The Shortridge High School student grew up surrounded by violence; her stepfather served time in prison for murder. These circumstances would leave many feeling hopeless. In Brown’s case, they inspired action.

“I am the hope,” Brown said. “If I don’t try to change things, who will?”

Brown met Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears — whose office collaborated with VOICES Corp. to install the billboards — when she participated in a public forum. Brown’s challenge to the audience was to talk to young people about their concerns and work with them to form solutions. Speaking to young people, Brown said, would help reduce the number of people being killed.

Young people in Indianapolis are disproportionally impacted by violence. Last year, roughly 69% of homicide victims were under the age of 40. Mears said he’s noticed a shift in recent years of more young adults being charged with murder.

Brown and Mears hope the 25 billboards spread throughout the city reminds Hoosiers of the role each community member can play in reducing violent crime.

The billboard campaign, supported by Reagan Outdoor Advertising, comes after a record-breaking year of violence in Indianapolis. Last year, 271 homicides — including 249 murders — were committed in Indianapolis, according to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD). Of the victims, 69% were Black, and 89% died from a gunshot wound.

Roughly 57% of last year’s homicide cases remain unsolved.

Latricia Hanyard has been searching for years for information surrounding her son Dontrell’s murder in 2013. Just 21 at the time of his death, Dontrell worked at an Amazon warehouse and left behind a young daughter, Dezire. Hanyard believes those close to Dontrell know who killed him, but no one has come forward with information.

“All these murder victims is someone’s child,” Hanyard said during a previous interview with the Recorder. “[Dontrell] is my child, and I still love him no matter what he did in life. … I’m not going to see my son no more, and it hurts. Nothing gives nobody the right to kill somebody.”

‘Hopefully we’ll see a transformative change’

Mayor Joe Hogsett knows there’s hard work ahead. Mayor since 2016, Hogsett has been at the helm throughout several record-breaking years of violence, social justice uprisings and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter, he said, has contributed to the uptick in violence not just in Indianapolis, but has “victimized every urban area throughout the country.”

To combat the effects of the pandemic — which has led to an increase in substance abuse and mental health disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Hogsett’s administration is investing $140,000 of federal funds toward organizations focused on mental health issues. Further, the creation of the Community Justice Campus in the Twin Aire neighborhood — expected to open this year — will hopefully revamp the city’s reentry program. Instead of incarceration for low-level offenses, Hogsett said the campus will offer treatment and provide individuals with the resources they need to get back on their feet.

“It’s an unprecedented and historical level of investment we’ll be making over the course of the next three years,” Hogsett said of the federal dollars allotted to the city from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. “This isn’t a challenge that occurred overnight, and it won’t be a challenge that we resolve overnight. … Over the next three years, hopefully we’ll see a transformative change in the level of violence that’s experienced by the city of Indianapolis.”

Hogsett is optimistic about data he said shows violence in the city is trending downward.

According to IMPD Assistant Chief Chris Bailey, the number of shooting incidents during the last half of 2021 decreased 11%. As of Jan. 24, homicides are down 35% compared to this time last year, and the rate of non-fatal shooting incidents are down 40%.

“It’s too early to say definitively, but I’m optimistic that the numbers are starting to trend in directions that I hope will be meaningful,” Hogsett said. “Let me qualify, if those numbers go back up, then we’ll be having another conversation, but at least thus far … the numbers seem to be trending in a way that I hope the people of Indianapolis will appreciate.”

Getting guns off the street

With 239 of the 271 homicide victims killed by a gun last year, the city has a “laser focus” on getting illegal guns off the street, according to Hogsett. Last year, the Indiana Crime Guns Task Force — a partnership between the Indianapolis Crime Guns Intelligence Center and several law enforcement agencies throughout the state — seized 288 illegally-owned firearms. Further, violence reduction teams led by IMPD’s Enhanced Community Safety Initiative seized 863 firearms.

Despite efforts from the city to curb gun violence, a bill in the Indiana General Assembly may make that work more challenging.
House Bill 1077, which was approved by the House by a vote of 64-29 Jan. 11, would repeal the state’s handgun permit requirement, making it easier for gun owners to carry in public. If signed into law, the bill would allow anyone 18 or older to carry a handgun without a permit, though those with felony convictions would still be prohibited. Both Hogsett and IMPD Chief Randal Taylor take issue with the bill.

“It won’t surprise you to know that it’s my judgment that that’s a step in the wrong direction,” Hogsett said. “What we’re focused like a laser on is trying to get as many guns off the street that are illegally possessed. … That’s an important distinction to make because it’s a lot of what I hear the debate over in the Indiana General Assembly becoming.”

Hogsett said most Americans support “common sense” gun reform, like closing the gun show loophole, which allows an individual to purchase a firearm at a gun show without undergoing a background check. However, the gun control debate often gets muddled, Hogsett said, by partisan politics.

“Everybody immediately turns to, ‘Well, you’re trying to take our legally possessed guns away from us,’ and nothing could be further from the truth,” Hogsett said. “If you own and operate a gun safely and legally, I guess that’s what the Second Amendment protects. We don’t want legal guns to be confiscated from people who possess them legally, we want to get the guns off the street that have no business being there.”

Taylor added that the bill would make it easier for individuals with felonies to obtain weapons by altering the checks put in place by the state. Notably, many of the law enforcement officers present at the hearing earlier this month expressed concerns about their ability, if the bill passes, to determine whether someone can legally carry a handgun during traffic stops without a permit requirement.

Community-led efforts

Among the programs touted by Hogsett and the Office of Public Health and Safety (OPHS) is the Peacemakers. Thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan, OPHS expects to have as many as 50 Peacemakers working in various communities in Indianapolis to curb violence.

Peacemakers can work in three different roles: outreach worker, life coach and interrupter. According to OPHS Chief Communications Officer Caroline Ellert, outreach workers and life coaches work to identify people who are “very high risk” for becoming either a victim or perpetrator of violence. Several of the eight risk factors include being 18-35 years old, being a Black or Latino male, previous criminal history, unemployment and having a close friend or family member shot in the last year.

Some Indianapolis residents take issue with the “violence interrupters,” largely because that position is meant to be anonymous.

“That is for safety reasons,” Ellert said in an email. “Interrupters prevent a conflict, typically with a gun, from occurring either by intervening right before a conflict happens or while a conflict is happening. Interrupters need to be credible messengers, meaning they have the trust and knowledge to be able to intervene in a situation that is close to potentially becoming violent or even deadly.”

However, some say this anonymity can make it difficult to build trust within neighborhoods. Keith “Wildstyle” Paschall, a community activist, photographer and music producer, said his experiences with Peacemakers in his Near Northwest United neighborhood concerned him.

“It’s deeply troubling because I know they wouldn’t do this to a white community,” Paschall said. “Send in someone who the community doesn’t know and they don’t know how to get in touch with them. It’s not a good way to build trust, nor is it a good way to prevent violence.”

For Paschall, community-led violence prevention involves helping people in the community overcome obstacles, such as poverty and trauma, which lead to violence.

“I truly believe that most people don’t want to be violent,” Paschall said. “People are victims of some of their poor choices, for sure, but most are victims of the circumstances and the systems in place. If you can help people overcome obstacles, most people, given the opportunity, would rather choose peace than risk incarceration or hurting themselves or someone they love.”

Tackling obstacles

As someone who sees the impact of crime every day, Mears knows you can’t effectively address violent crime without addressing poverty.

“Poverty is the root cause of many types of violence we see in the community,” Mears said. “It’s important to recognize that when you give people hope and opportunity, you don’t see them in the criminal justice system. … There’s very much the haves and the have-nots in Indianapolis, and we need to work to eliminate those differences.”

Hogsett said he’s proud of his administration’s investments in food access and security, as well as the $30 million investment into the city’s rental assistance program. He said reducing poverty in the city is a “long and committed effort.”

For Brown, working to combat violence means working to see the humanity in everyone, regardless of their criminal history.

Knowing people who were victims and people who were perpetrators of violent crime helped her understand the many factors that lead to violence and what needs to be done to stop it.

“Even though I was around a lot of violence, I was also around people who were changing, people who need help,” Brown said. “I was impacted, but I was inspired.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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