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Thursday, February 29, 2024

In Indianapolis, drugs and guns converge, but solutions remain disjointed

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One year after a landmark study connecting drug abuse to gun violence, the city’s community activists say a fragmented response is trapping neighborhoods in a dangerous cycle.

This story was published in partnership with The Trace.

 Keystone Millersville Neighborhood
A glimpse of the Keystone, Millersville Neighborhood of Indianapolis. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

After a day spent observing a courtroom trial at the Community Justice Campus, Anthony Beverly sat on his living room couch and shuffled through handwritten notes from the day’s proceeding. The community activist felt a pang of hopelessness; he believed that the young man on trial was innocent, but he was uncertain that the jury would see it that way. 

RELATED: Chicago to Indianapolis: Two mass shootings connecting one major problem 

For nearly 20 years, the Indianapolis native has worked throughout the city with young people afflicted with violence and addiction through his nonprofit organization Stop the Violence Indianapolis. “We have been and are going through a lot as a city,” he said, jostling between feelings of frustration and his commitment to preventing violence in his community. “But I am not giving up.”

Beverly was introduced to service work and community intervention as a charismatic teenager in the ’80s, when attorney and activist Berto Elmore took him to visit the Phoenix Recovery House in New York City. He learned strategies for helping his own midwestern community, which he said was wracked by the crack cocaine epidemic.

Anthony Beverly, founder of Stop the Violence in Indianapolis, in his office, in the Keystone, Millersville neighborhood. Photos by Carlos Javier Ortiz. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

In those years, he watched as his neighborhood was consumed by the emerging “war on drugs” and the violence that followed it — simultaneous public health issues that were rarely regarded as such. “Here I am, a couple of years older than the other kids, and I’m leading them in this project where we had to go and study and learn about the impact that crack cocaine was having on our community,” recalled Beverly. “Here it is, 30-some years later I’m mentoring kids who were born to parents from the crack epidemic.” Through his work, Beverly has seen the intergenerational connections between substance abuse and gun violence in his city. Now, emerging research is confirming what he’s experienced, finding that in Indianapolis, a strong connection exists between the two.

A landmark study, led by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and released last year, shows that 75 percent of census tracts in the city with high rates of firearm injuries also had high rates of opioid overdoses. Rates for both crises were two times higher in these communities than in nearby census tracts, according to the study. And though these dual public health emergencies are converging in a crisis — exacerbated by the rise of fentanyl, researchers say — resources are thin, and the responses of rehabilitation services, violence prevention groups, and law enforcement are disparate.

Map: Opioids and gun violence in Indianapolis

In Indianapolis, drugs and guns converge, but solutions remain disjointed
Map: Olga Pierce
The data from this map is from a study by L.A. Magee et al, which used spatial clustering to identify census tracts with high levels of gun violence and opioid overdoses.
Click “Map” above to view the map.

“Drugs and gun violence have gone together for decades from a crime perspective,” said  Lauren Magee, an IUPUI professor who was the lead researcher of the study. “They kind of feed each other in that narrative, but they are never looked at from the public health perspective.”

In 2019, Indiana had the 19th-highest overdose rate in the country, with an average of four deaths a day. Of those, Black people — who only made up 13 percent of the state’s population — had the highest overdose rate, at 28.2 per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 25.2 across the state’s other demographic groups. Indianapolis, the state’s most populous city and the 12th largest in the country, accounted for nearly 20 percent of the state’s overdoses, making it a leading cause of death. At the same time, by 2020, Indianapolis was the 11th most violent city in the country, with nearly 80 percent of the city’s 245 homicides involving firearms. By comparison, during the previous five years, the city didn’t exceed more than 180 homicides annually.

“The drugs bring the money, which results in things like envy or competition, which ultimately leads to the violence,” said Antonio Patton, founder of M.O.V.E., a violence prevention organization in Indianapolis. “They all go hand-in-hand.”

Patton’s voice shakes as he reflects on his teenage and young adult years of selling drugs and the friends that he lost to the drug trade. He empathizes with many of the young people he knows who face precarious economic and emotional circumstances, without enough food to eat or provide: “As illegal as it is,” he said of their mentality, “I’m numb to the consequences.”

“Prepandemic, structural disadvantages exacerbated both overdoses and firearm injuries,” said Magee, pointing to a sense of hopelessness among some residents tied to a lack of available research, health care, and programs. “It just really speaks to the lack of investment that these communities have received over the last decades, if not centuries.”

Beverly’s work often takes him out of his office, into his car and the neighborhoods of Indianapolis. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

The study led by Magee used Indianapolis Star data on firearm injuries and overdose data from local law enforcement departments between 2018 and 2020 to identify incidents of both, including nonfatal occurrences, that were then applied to census tract data. EMS data was also incorporated into the dataset, and, from there, researchers built a geo-spatial analysis that  looked at where the events took place and drew correlative conclusions between them.

The results found 27 census tracts with high firearm and overdose rates, and within these census tracts, the composite rate of overdoses was 180 times higher, and the firearm injury rate was 35 times higher, than the rate citywide. The findings also showed that census tracts with high drug overdose rates were associated with higher firearm injuries the following year. Nearly 50 percent of residents who lived in the census tracts with high overdose and high firearm injury rates lived below the poverty line, the study found; 13 percent of homes in those areas are abandoned, and 58 percent of residents are Black.

The availability of fentanyl compared to other opioids, and worsening social determinants of health, may be contributing factors to why Black rates of overdose are increasing, according to research. Since 2018, the opioid overdose rate among Indianapolis’ Black residents has increased by 23 percent and is on pace to surpass the rate of overdose among white residents, a trend that has been reported nationally. Meanwhile, despite making up less than 30 percent of the city’s population, Black people accounted for nearly 78 percent of homicide and 77 percent of shooting victims between 2018 to 2020.

“With fentanyl, we are seeing language and tactics that resemble our regular pattern of being ‘tough on drugs’ without really addressing the true underlying problems,” said Bradley Ray, one of the study’s authors. More aggressive law enforcement tactics and the growth of illegal opioid distribution simultaneously worsened both gun violence and sentencing outcomes, he said, which has been detrimental to the Black community here.

Beverly walks along the 800 block of Paca St., off Indiana Avenue, the neighborhood where he grew up. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

For Beverly, who grew up off Indiana Avenue, the relationship between racial disparity and violence is evident in his own life. In the very place his grandfather owned multiple homes on the 800 block, once a historic district of Black homeownership and thriving business, today he walks among clusters of some of the highest rates of firearm injuries and opioid overdoses in the city, mere blocks from where he grew up. He explains that in the 1950s and 60s, as residents were pushed away by racism and the city’s resistance to Black sprawl, the avenue saw increased crime and high unemployment rates. Tears welled in his eyes as he reflected on the racism he experienced in Indy growing up, echoed in the area’s decline, he said.

“We have everything we need to decrease gun violence in one to two years in Indianapolis,” he said, confident in the ability of community organizations and government agencies to uncover solutions, if they prioritize each other’s work. “What we don’t have is unity.”

Without a unified front with well-equipped resources, Beverly knows that compounding issues lead to violence. That’s why, in 2006, he established Stop the Violence Indianapolis, a violence prevention organization focused on uplifting the city’s youth with anti-violence information and strategies. Most of Stop the Violence’s participants are Black youth and young adults with fractured familial relationships, Beverly said, and the program attempts to help them navigate resources, like violence intervention specialists and anger management coaching. 

But Stop the Violence Indianapolis’ services extend beyond those initiatives. Beverly and his wife, Beatrice Beverly, are well-known in the community, family to many of those they mentor and work with through their organization. For 20-year-old Darrell Mays, a participant who has been with the program for over a decade, Anthony Beverly is like a father.

“I lost my pops when I was three — he was shot trying to look for my mama, who was struggling with addiction, and my mama, she OD’d this past year. So I am just going through a lot right now, and Mr. Beverly has been that shoulder to lean on,” said Mays. “Mr. Beverly gave me the father figure that was missing from my life. He started mentoring me, and my friends, one who had lost his father too, and he really stepped up to the plate for us.”

While grateful for being able to focus on work he is passionate about, Beverly acknowledged that there are struggles that come with doing it for so long, a shared sentiment among other outreach workers, like law enforcement and drug rehabilitation specialists, that are crucial to a strategy of addressing both crises simultaneously.

“It’s so overwhelming,” he said. “Every day I ask myself, ‘Why do I keep going and doing this work when it seems like we are going backward,’ but I find myself still committed to helping my community.” 

Anthony W. Beverly (on the left) and Devin Murrell, 30 (on the right), reconnect as Anthony lends support to Devin during his transition from the aftermath of violence. Murrell, a victim of a gun violence incident, sustained multiple injuries and is now navigating the healing process with Beverly’s assistance. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

Magee and her fellow researchers say their findings in the study show that a co-response could be instrumental in addressing both of the opioid and gun violence crises, empowering “overlapped ‘hot spot’ communities to deploy harm reduction strategies.” A resource-driven response that deploys the community engagement work of a trusted violence interrupter like Beverly could help provide information and educate communities on life-saving strategies, like how to safely distribute naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

“Other states have begun to make opioid suppressants like Narcan more readily available, and maybe that’s something Indiana should look into,” said Randolph Roth, a historian and criminologist at The Ohio State University who has studied the relationship between opioid use and violence. “Looking at the context in which these homicides occur, it is not rocket science that concentrated poverty, guns, and drugs equals death, but it has to be studied more.”

These researchers urge that having reliable data that highlights specific community needs is important in implementing strategies.

“Which communities are the most affected, and which community groups, community partners, and people who have lived experience do we need to bring to the table to help identify what our next programs or policies need to be to reduce both overdoses and firearm injuries,” said Magee. “That’s why the race piece is important… it informs us on who else needs to be a community partner when we start designing and redesigning these co-occurring prevention programs.”

Beverly driving through Indianapolis neighborhoods at dusk. (Photo/Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Trace)

The seemingly endless cycle of violence, addiction, overdose, and incarceration echoes loudly for Beverly. 

“It just keeps going on and on,” he said. “I had a young man, who met his father for the first time in person as he was going in to do time, and his dad was getting out. And they never got to connect on the outside. His father was shot and killed not too long after his release.” 

“I have days where I want to give up, but I wake up every day and keep going.” He straightens up. Clears his throat. “What do I look like preaching hope to everybody and not having any myself?”


Fairriona is a public health reporter at The Trace. Previously, she created a newsletter focused on health disparities and environmental injustice titled Tropes & Stereotypes. Fairriona has covered a range of topics including public safety, climate change, and food insecurity as an undergraduate and graduate student. She attended North Carolina A&T State University where she studied mass media production. She received a graduate degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, specializing in science writing.

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