Eight square miles
Indianapolis' big experiment in fighting crime
Warned not to stack them too high, public safety director Troy Riggs places canned corn and green beans on a folding table in the gym of Barnes United Methodist Church. He’s here with his family volunteering at this weekly food pantry. Barnes Church is a refuge for this Northwest Side neighborhood, identified by law enforcement as one of the city’s most dangerous and distressed areas.
Riggs was once a beat cop in Louisville, and a faint Southern drawl still seeps out as he greets people moving through the line.
Police officers pass out cereal, popcorn and frozen meat while firefighters help older residents carry groceries to the parking lot. But Riggs is using this pop-up Gleaners food pantry as more than a way to feed the hungry. It’s part of a grand plan to reform policing.
When he took over the Indianapolis public safety department, Riggs started using big data, digging into the numbers beyond arrest and murder statistics to identify neighborhoods around six major intersections:
- 16th and Tibbs on the Westside
- 34th and Illinois in the Crown Hill neighborhood
- New York and Sherman on the Near Eastside
- 38th and Sherman on the Northeast Side
- 42nd and Post on the Far Eastside
- 29th and Dr. MLK Jr. Street on the Northwest Side
The last one is just a block away from where Riggs and police and firefighters are handing out food.
“We have eight square miles we’re talking about today out of 400 in the city of Indianapolis, where 4.7 percent of our population resides,” Riggs says. “But yet they live in areas where 20 percent of the homicides occur, 27 percent of non-fatal shootings, 14-plus percent of all mental-health runs, in the entire city, are made in eight square miles.”
The shifting urban landscape is isolating poverty. These neighborhoods, especially those on the west and northwest sides of downtown, are poor and marginalized. Economic conditions for the communities that live there are a byproduct of mid-20th century urban planning. The problems started when the expansion of downtown institutions displaced the city’s historic African-American neighborhood, once anchored along Indiana Avenue. Then the installation of I-65 walled off the Northwest Side neighborhood’s growth.
Decades later, a younger and wealthier generation is returning to urban life, slowly pricing African-Americans out of once affordable neighborhoods. This gentrification has further concentrated poverty, creating the right environment for crime.
And while each of these neighborhoods is unique, they share similar problems, such such as vacant housing, as high as 35 percent in some neighborhoods. The result has been a gradual decline of the neighborhoods.
“Any area that’s having trouble, that has a degradation of quality of life, and that’s really what we’re talking about, crime is an after-effect,” Riggs says. “When you look at this, the breakdown of family is one of the glaring issues in each one of these areas. That leads to a lot of issues, lack of education, lack of coping skills, a lack of people being fed properly.”
A new approach
Riggs decided to try something new. He brought together 31 community and nonprofit groups to begin working on issues like mental-health care, hunger and blight -- underlying issues that drive criminal behavior.
Though 2015 had seen a decline in murders throughout Indianapolis, a violent August wiped away those gains, and the murder rate even edged up in these focus areas. Through the end of August there were 84 homicides, down just seven percent from the 90 through the same time period last year, which was the most deadly in recent history.
Riggs acknowledges crime in these neighborhoods could get worse before it gets better. He says that’s why this needs to be a long-term effort, one focused on community building.
“Here’s how we’re going to know we’re successful, when every one of these areas has some type of organic leader, community leader in those areas,” he says. “Where DPS [Department of Public Safety] is not leading the charge, DPS is being held accountable.”
Riggs launched this plan in January, but left his post as public safety director seven months later for a teaching job at IUPUI to teach and research criminal justice. While the city continues to invest in the program for now, there will be a new administration in place next year.
"This real illegal issue"
LaShawnda Crowe Storm grew up on the Northwest side and returned to it to work as a community organizer. She says residents here are attached to the area and don’t see it as just a high-crime zone.
“The neighborhood has a very long history and I’m attached to it, because my family’s still here and despite what they say about the focus areas, I never felt that way,” she says. “When I grew up it was good times and I remember businesses and things in the neighborhood.”
During a drive through her neighborhood, Crowe Storm wants to show some of what she sees as the real problems facing residents. She drives first past the elementary school.
“Within basically a three-block radius around the school and the routes that kids take, there’s 75-plus abandoned homes,” she says.
She found young kids weren’t going to school or attending after-school programs because they were scared of the overgrown alleys and boarded-up homes.
Crowe Storm and the community are working with Indianapolis police to increase patrols so kids can feel safer walking to school. “So in terms of the focus area, that’s more of a focus for the community. How do we keep our kids safe, versus what’s going on at MLK and 29th,” Crowe Storm says.
Then she turns down the alleys behind those boarded-up homes. The narrow gravel path is lined with overgrown shrubs, but they don’t hide the trash and beaten furniture dumped there. It’s this kind of blight Crowe Storm sees as a real problem.
She counts out loud five mattresses, a few dressers and piles and piles of clothes. “This is not one house. So the question becomes, is this a landlord who’s done this? So are they tracking that? So for me as a community person, I’m much more interested in you helping me get this real illegal issue addressed,” she asks aloud.
Crowe Storm praises Indianapolis police but she questions whether the focus area approach will lead to lasting change in the neighborhood.
“We’ve lost a sense of community”
For Jay Height, community change is all about the people. Height is the pastor of the Shepherd Community Center on the Near Eastside, where another of the focus areas is centered around the intersection of New York and Sherman. He’s taken on an out-sized role in this community, and sees how lives are affected by some of the neighborhood’s problems.
“We’re not going to police our way out of this, this is really a matter of hope,” Height says during a walk through the neighborhood. “And we as a church, as a ministry, as a nonprofit on the Near Eastside, it’s really our job to help instill hope into people and to let them know there’s someone there that cares.”
Height’s neighborhood has been walloped by economic changes. First came the loss of the RCA plant and its thousands of jobs, which trickled out of the neighborhood to Mexico, all gone by the mid-1990s. Later that decade came the failure of a major neighborhood development corporation. Eastside Community Investments had rehabbed and sold hundreds of homes at its peak, but ECI’s work was abruptly halted when it went bankrupt in 1999.
It’s like the recession never ended, Height says. Despite the area’s decline, he feels privileged to live here.
“It’s a place where the porch is still in the front, and that’s a sense of community,” Height says. “And I think the greatest challenge we have is, we’ve lost some sense of community. And with the loss of community, then there’s no social capital, and if there’s no social capital you can’t bring about societal change.”
Those front porches can be places to meet the neighbors. For people like James Abbott, they can also be a place to witness vice and crime.
Abbott lost his job months ago, and now he spends a lot of his day in a tattered recliner on his porch with his dog, Smokey, close by. He rolls a cigarette and talks about what he sees from that perch.
“I don’t like this neighborhood one bit,” he says. “You can find anything you want to at just about any house on this street whether it be crack, heroin, weed, it just don’t matter. It’s a bad neighborhood.”
From Abbott’s front porch, it’s hard to see the hope and sense of community that people like Pastor Height long to restore.
Smaller and smaller spaces
Heedless urban growth left these neighborhoods in distress
It’s the first half of an often repeated phrase when talking about Indianapolis’ highest crime neighborhoods: We didn’t get here overnight. Each neighborhood’s path to the center of public safety officials’ attention is different, but some share similar histories, struggles and challenges.
While many areas in Indianapolis continue to grow in affluence, the city’s poorer residents have been forced into more isolated areas. And here, we find the ecosystem where violent crime thrives.
They’re just eight square miles in all, home to 42,000 people. The neighborhoods of Haughville, United Northwest Area, Crown Hill, Martindale-Brightwood, Near Eastside and the Far Eastside.
These neighborhoods, especially those on the west and northwest sides of downtown, have struggled in the face of mid-20th century urban planning practices that took advantage of their African-American residents’ minimal political and social capital. Decades later, a younger and wealthier generation is returning to urban life, pricing the poor out of once affordable neighborhoods.
Data and numbers tell one part of the story. The focus areas greatly outpace the city in rates of crime and home vacancy; and residents of all six focus areas lag behind the rest of the city in terms of wealth and educational achievement.
In the smallest of the focus areas, the Crown Hill neighborhood, per capita homicides are 1,000 percent more prevalent than the rest of the city. More than a third of the homes in the Northwest Side neighborhood along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street are boarded up. Twice as many people in Haughville did not complete high school. Unemployment in each of the focus areas is double the city-wide average.
De facto segregation
Haughville, the Northwest Side and Crown Hill neighborhoods took their present shape in the 1960s and 70s.
Much of Indianapolis’ African-American population during the early part of that time was centered around Indiana Avenue downtown, home to jazz clubs and black-owned businesses.
The neighborhood was seeing rapid growth from African-Americans moving north out of more segregated southern cities, according to Richard Pierce, a historian at Notre Dame who has extensively studied the African-American community of Indianapolis in the 20th century.
“The homes African-Americans most often inhabited immediately before and after World War II were below standard and sometimes lacked the most basic advances like plumbing and electricity,” he said at a 2013 symposium on Art, Race and Space at IUPUI. Those slum conditions were exacerbated by the home lending practices known as Redlining.
Before World War II, the Federal Housing Authority began rating and color-coding the quality of neighborhoods based on their housing stock and resident demographics. This resulted in predominantly African-American neighborhoods being colored red. Banks used these rating systems to deny loans, and some affluent neighborhoods actively fought integration, confining African-Americans to substandard housing and overcrowded neighborhoods.
“African-Americans became spatially segregated in 20th century Indianapolis by de facto segregation by white realtors and neighborhood associations.” Paul Mullins, an IUPUI professor of anthropology, said at the Art, Race and Space symposium.
It was the creation of Mullins’ college campus, IUPUI, that began to displace the city’s black population. The state university began buying up homes and businesses in the 1960s and Indiana Avenue was vacated.
A college campus, state office buildings and parks now stand in the neighborhood’s place.
As the black population center began to move west and north, it butted up against predominately white neighborhoods in a period of white flight, the migration of wealthy white urban residents to the suburbs.
Many African-Americans moved west, across the White River, into a neighborhood known as Haughville. This was an area first populated by European immigrants working in heavy industry. The racial makeup would soon shift to mostly black as those families moved away from the city center and the foundries closed.
Land for the creation of the Indianapolis Zoo consumed 70 homes in the neighborhood and instilled fear of further expansion of the downtown into the westside, according to the Polis Center’s Project on Religion and Urban Culture. “Area residents watched helplessly as their homes deteriorated and property values dropped in anticipation of the city’s demolition,” the Center wrote.
And to the north, African-Americans were moving up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Their migration north toward the historic and influential white neighborhood of Golden Hill, just west of Crown Hill Cemetery, was cut off by the construction of Interstate 65. This confined that migration.
A giant hole
The history of the city’s Near Eastside and the focus area around New York and Sherman is less about neighborhood loss, but is still a tale of declining housing quality and the loss of well-paid jobs.
“As suburbs spread outward from the center of Indianapolis, the Near Eastside became part of the inner city. Middle-class homeowners moved away and with them went many churches and service businesses that residents had come to rely upon,” The Polis Center wrote.
Electronics maker RCA was once headquartered in the center of this neighborhood, a one-time source of 8,200 white- and blue-collar jobs. But by the end of the 1990s, those manufacturing jobs had moved to Mexico and RCA’s headquarters to Carmel, Indiana. This has left a giant hole on the Near Eastside.
RCA’s shuttering predated by just a few years the collapse of the neighborhood’s housing economy. Once a model for neighborhood redevelopment, Eastside Community Development Corporation had rehabbed and sold hundreds of homes in the neighborhood by the height of its work in the mid-1990s. But by the end of that decade, ECI was bankrupt and the area’s housing stock in turmoil.
“Not well thought out”
Suburbanization of Indianapolis after the merger of the city and county, and the development strategy of low-income housing drove poverty to the Far Eastside.
Much of the affordable housing in Indianapolis built in the second half of the last century was constructed on the outskirts of the city center, along the ring formed by Interstate 465.
Court orders and federal policies blocked the construction of housing projects in the city center, which prompted developers to build subsidized housing developments along that outer ring.
These new homes, many of them cookie-cutter apartment complexes, accepted Section 8 federal housing vouchers, which attracted low-income people in search of better housing than the historically black neighborhoods could provide.
These communities “were not well built or well thought out,” says University of Indianapolis sociologist Tim Maher. Lacking walkability or easy access to services and amenities, they will struggle for the foreseeable future.
The focus area around 38th and Sherman, a neighborhood referred to often as Martindale-Brightwood, was once a multi-racial working class neighborhood, bolstered by the railroad industry just to the south of the borders of the focus area.
But economic changes of urban life in the 1960s hit the neighborhood hard. A majority of its population was plunged into poverty, according to The Polis Center.
The migration away from Brightwood at that time left behind “a surplus of housing”. More low-income African-Americans moved into the neighborhood in the decades that followed, The Polis Center said.
The neighborhood is now nearly 90 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.
A population pushed
Income levels and property values in the core of Indianapolis are rising as neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown gentrify.
But here’s the rub, as Maher describes: Downtown Indianapolis is a service-driven economy, which requires low-wage labor to clean hotel rooms and serve concessions at sporting events. Many of the people working those jobs can’t afford to live much farther away from downtown than they do now because many don’t own cars.
The affordable neighborhoods remaining lack attractive amenities like grocery stores and well-built homes ready to be rehabbed.
“When you talk about improvements, sometimes that’s just gentrification pushing the same population into a smaller and smaller space,” Maher says.
Residents hoping to escape the struggles of inner-city neighborhoods are now being forced to leapfrog wealthy neighborhoods in the middle of the city and must settle for those outlying rings of affordable housing, such as the area around 42nd and Post Road on the Far Eastside.
But many are also trapped, unable to find safer places to live that still allow them to be close enough to work. So, Maher says, residents are forced to stay inside and keep their heads down. “If you’re not a bad person and you live in those neighborhoods, you really feel abandoned,” he says.
Asked whether a decade from now the six most dangerous neighborhoods in Indianapolis will be the same as they are today, Maher says it will likely be mixed. He predicted the ones closer to downtown, like Haughville, will soon be ripe for the bulldozer of gentrification. But that, he says, will only push poverty to new places, suburban areas like 42nd and Post Road, or Pike Township, which is already seeing an increase in violence.
Social problems, Maher says, are being pushed to places where there aren’t the resources to alleviate them. And that’s what the Department of Public Safety’s ambitious experiment is aimed at changing.
A tour of the focus areas
Keeping a promise to himself
How a rookie cop's first day shaped public safety in Indy
Troy Riggs walked away from his first roll call making himself a promise. It was 1989, and he was a new police officer in his hometown of Louisville, young and still living at home.
Sitting in the pre-shift briefing, his shoes not yet worn down from the work of being a beat cop, his captain walked in and gave a speech that would shape Riggs’ entire career in law enforcement.
The captain began talking about Riggs’ neighborhood. The streets he grew up on, still lived on. He knows he didn’t come of age in the nicest part of Louisville. “There was a lot of issues,” Riggs says of his neighborhood, but this was a darker view.
Then the captain laid out his plan for dealing with that Louisville neighborhood.
“He came out and said we needed to step up patrols in that area. And I won’t use his exact quote, but he said ‘I want you to go back there, stop everything that moves, you can’t trust any of those’ - and he used some expletives - ‘in that area because no one back there was good.’”
Riggs was rocked. “That was my neighborhood, that’s where I lived,” he recalls. “I found that pretty offensive.”
“It taught me a lot about perceptions, about community relationships,” he says. And so Riggs made promise to himself before he ever hit the street as a police officer: If he was ever in a position of power, he would never treat a community that way.
Riggs did rise to powerful positions within government and law enforcement. He eventually led a merger of the Jefferson County, Kentucky and Louisville police departments. He was an assistant city manager in Corpus Christi, Texas before Mayor Greg Ballard tapped him three years ago to be the director of public safety in Indianapolis.
As overseer to the police and fire departments in Indianapolis, among other branches, Riggs took aim at neighborhoods like the one he grew up in. But he did it in a way different from typical policing.
When Riggs was a beat cop, arrests was the only data he had to measure success. But that wasn’t how Riggs wanted to gauge good policing. Instead, he assigned teams to spend months crunching numbers that went beyond shootings and homicides, to income, education and housing.
The data revealed just eight square miles that are responsible for about a quarter of Indianapolis’ homicides.
Riggs launched a holistic approach to combating and reducing crime in the six neighborhoods identified. He brought 31 nonprofits and community organizations to the table that offer services targeting the root causes of crime, like poverty, unemployment, hunger and mental health.
As ambitious as it is, the future is unknown for Riggs’ focus area initiative. He left the city in July to join the faculty and teach public safety at IUPUI. Ballard isn’t running for re-election, and the new mayor will bring in his own public safety leader and possibly a whole new approach to policing.
The public safety department initiative is meant to be a catalyst of lasting community improvement, not a long-term program. The success of the experiment depends on a future where community members take responsibility for change and the person in Riggs’ position is held accountable for it.
Riggs sees similarities between the six neighborhoods his data pointed him to and the one in Louisville he called home. He didn’t have a glowing view of police officers as a child. “We did not have a good impression of police in our area, just to be honest with you,” he says.
In fact, Riggs says, the only real interaction he had with police as a young person was pretty negative. The officer was rude to him.
“But there’s some things that aren’t so similar,” he says.
The schools there were decent, and he had some great teachers. He had a solid family and a home he felt safe in. Too often now, Riggs laments, good people living in Indy’s high-crime neighborhoods are scared to go outside after dark, and younger ones don’t have ambition or hopes.
Riggs realizes he won’t be able to touch every single member of these communities - about 42,000 people - but he says the opportunity should be there for them to succeed.
“That’s what it really comes down to,” he says. “And it seems to me, we’re slipping back a little bit.”
A different face
Sam Pence spent this summer walking the Near Eastside, camera in hand, asking strangers if he could take their picture.
“They’re obviously going to be a little taken aback by the camera, but once you explain yourself, most people, they warm up,” he says.
The explanation is that Pence is creating a photo essay. A few quick portraits and a conversation provides a brief look into a stranger’s life.
Pence interned with the Shepherd Community Center, located in one of the public safety focus areas. The goal for Pence and others at the community center is to show this crime-plagued neighborhood a different way. It’s called Faces of the City.
“Faces of the City aims to highlight the faces and stories from Indianapolis’ most marginalized communities, thus bridging the gap between suburb and street corner and encouraging a new narrative on the realities of poverty,” the project says.
Faces of the City shared some of the pictures they took this summer with Intersections, which you call scroll through below.
The pop-up food pantries that operated in Indianpolis’ public safety’s so-called “focus areas” this summer are over – at least for now. And while they were most visible – and popular – part of the ambitious crime-fighting plan, they’re only a small part of solving food insecurity – a problem that spreads well beyond the boundaries of the six focus area neighborhoods.
The pantries drew hundreds of people each week, including Janice Mucker.
“Look at the diversity that’s here, the young the old, the disabled, the children, the different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, you don’t see anyone fussing or fighting or anything. They’re all just getting along,” observes Mucker.
She’s a retired social worker, and she’s lived in Haughville for about 40 years. Mucker is 73 now, and she depleted her retirement savings caring for family. So to stretch her food budget a bit, she visited the food giveaways in the Kroger parking lot on Michigan Street in Haughville.
“I’m just coming out of a financial bind, because I had my two great-granddaughters, and I emptied out my IRA to give them beds and clothing, and because I did that, I wasn’t eligible for food stamps so everything came out of my pocket,” she says.
In Marion County, nearly 19 percent of people lack reliable access to enough nutritious, affordable food, according to the hunger relief charity organization Feeding America. It’s a big problem in neighborhoods like Haughville, and public health experts say it figures into everything from children’s poor performance in school to health problems for adults.
Gleaners Food Bank chief executive Cindy Hubert says her organization jumped at the chance to be part of the Department of Public Safety’s holistic anti-crime initiative.
“We thought early on if we could step in and provide the food, that was one less piece that people needed to stress about,” says Hubert.
Neighbors helping neighbors
More than 57,000 people visited the food pantries over the summer, and they provided an important resource, especially for families while school was out. But the food banks were also aimed at something more ‒ bridging a gap between the police and a public that’s often mistrustful of them.
As he waited in line with his mother and grandson, Aaron Schumpert watched police officers and firefighters help people carry boxes of food to waiting vehicles.
Over the summer, Schumpert visited all of the food pantries in the six focus area neighborhoods. He wasn’t always getting groceries for himself.
“We take it and we give it to others,” Schumpert says. “Like my mother’s neighbor ‒ his wife isn’t doing too well ‒ so she’s taking it and giving it to him and at least he has something to eat.”
As a devoted Christian, J.R. Dalton has made it his mission to make food available to needy people. On Saturday mornings, the line of people waiting outside his food pantry on West 10th Street sometimes stretches around the block.
“It’s hard to speak to anyone who’s hungry, even if you speak to them about Christ, because they want to be fed physically before spiritually,” Dalton says.
Now he’s started a store called “Ripe and Ready,” in one of his buildings on West Washington Street, where he sells produce at a very deep discount. Dalton says that for him, food is a form of ministry.
“A little boy came to me one day and I asked, ‘Danny, what’s it like when you’re really hungry? And he says, ‘J.R., it’s like a black hole in my stomach and it’s so painful,’” Dalton says.
Inspired by a friend who shares the food she gets at Dalton’s food pantry, Jan Mucker likes to help out her loved ones, too.
“She was always giving stuff away, (saying) ‘I’ll bring you this, I’ll bring you that,’” Mucker says. “But it’s helpful and I pass it on to kids, grandkids, people at church, whatever.”
Mucker learned thrift from her grandmother, and her freezer is still stocked with some of the goods she got at the Gleaners food pantry this summer.
“She’d just get all the stuff that people couldn’t sell and she’d bring it back and she’d pare it up, take out the rotten places, and she’d have a vegetable soup, but it’s nutritious and everything,” Mucker says.
She says that having a close circle of friends at church and family around helps her feel safe in Haughville, a place that’s long struggled with crime.
“My son always asks me, ‘Momma, why did you buy in Haughville?’ I say, ‘Haughville’s been good to me.’”
More than a box of mac n’ cheese
Public safety director David Wantz says the focus area plan can’t succeed without good neighbors like Mucker, Dalton and Schumpert.
“They’re the folks that are going to make their neighborhoods strong and they’re the ones who are going to come together. And those are the people we’re really trying to assist, so that the bad guys won’t have a place to stay,” Wantz says.
When the focus area initiative started almost a year ago, public safety officials realized that food had to be part of the puzzle.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a bad neighborhood or into a good neighborhood because the underlying issues in the neighborhood that make it fertile for crime are still there,” Wantz says.
Yet as important as they are, these food giveaways aren’t long-term solutions to food insecurity and neighborhood safety, says Whitney Fields, a program manager for the Indy Food Council. The group works on issues of food security and sustainability.
“The only way that’s going to happen is that the community supports it and buys into it and it’s community grounded, right? Community members are very aware of the needs in their community and what they want. I think it’s up to us to listen to what that need is and what that want is,” Fields says.
Far Eastside resident Aaron Schumpert realizes that peace in the streets isn’t going to come after one trip to the pantry.
“We still have to find something to do, because when this ends it doesn’t mean that this has solved the problem, it’s just a step,” Schumpert says.
Gleaners and public safety officials say they’re looking for money and manpower to continue the mobile food pantry project.
But Schumpert says, “It doesn’t even have to be giving away free food, if they can just bring the community together then we don’t have to be afraid of one another.”
Growing a community
Tony Skelton’s garden is bountiful. He grows onions, corn, squash, okra, peppers and a lot more. The bounty of the backyard vegetable patch is available to anyone who’s hungry.
He does have a license to sell the produce grown at his home at 35th and Sherman Drive, but he’s not looking to get rich. “Basically everything in my garden is a dollar, cucumbers a dollar, I’ll give you a dollar worth of tomatoes,” Skelton says.
About five years ago, Skelton, a retired iron worker, started planting a garden on the plot of land right next to his house where an abandoned home once stood.
“I mainly learned from hard knocks and watching others,” Skelton says. “My mentors are some older guys.”
Skelton’s urban farm offers a novel, and scalable, solution to the problem of access to affordable, nutritious food facing Indianapolis neighborhoods like his, which is included in the six so-called “focus area” neighborhoods identified by the Department of Public Safety.
Urban gardens, where people can buy in or even sometimes get free food, help the cause and are an important piece of the food security puzzle. The gardens can also help improve quality of life in communities like Skelton’s, where violent crime is far too frequent.
Earlier this summer in Skelton’s neighborhood, police shot and killed 15-year-old Andre Greene.
“Sunday, the kids that stole the car, they jacked somebody for a car with a gun, then they ran from the police, he rammed a police car and then the kid pointed a gun at the cop, they killed him,” Skelton says. “Monday would have been his first day in high school.”
Skelton thinks change happens when people come together and kids unplug -- and maybe get their hands dirty.
“Even a community garden, you know those that are interested in gardening, we have kids that are interested in sewing,” he says, “life doesn’t happen over a computer, life happens through communication.”
Charles Harrison still remembers his father’s grief the night he learned that Junior was dead.
“I’ve seen my father basically fall to his knees in agony,” he recalls.
Harrison and his stepbrother, Junior, as he was known, grew up a few miles apart, on opposite sides of the Ohio River. And though Junior visited Harrison and his father in Jeffersonville, Indiana, often, he kept his crime life away from them. Until that night his father got called to Louisville.
“When he came back home, he shared with my mother what had happened, that Junior had been shot, they believed, seven or eight times,” he says. “He had been thrown out of the car, left to die.”
Thou shalt nots
The streets talk and rumors spread. Pretty soon Harrison, who was just 14 years old, had a good idea of who his older stepbrother’s killers were. And then those men showed up at Junior’s funeral.
“Wanted to hurt them, wanted revenge. That’s what’s running through my head,” Harrison says. “Because for them to embrace my father and mother and pretend like they were grieving for my brother when they were the ones that killed him, was just almost unbearable.”
At a moment when he was filled with rage, Harrison’s life could have gone down a very different road. When he could have gotten sucked into violence, he didn’t.
“There were these ‘thou shalt nots’ in my life. And ultimately it was those ‘thou shalt nots’ that kept me from pursuing trying to harm those who had harmed my brother,” he says.
So instead, four decades later, Harrison has become Indianapolis’ most vocal caller for peace in the city’s distressed neighborhoods, and a frequent presence on the evening news.
Why did he turn away from his desire for revenge after Junior’s revenge? He had his family. He had sports. And he had the church.
“I think it created boundaries for me that I was not aware of,” Harrison says. “And ultimately those boundaries kept me from falling off the cliff.”
A few years after Junior’s death, Harrison felt a calling to God, as he walked home late one night. He was 17. “And for the first time I really prayed to God. And I prayed to God that I didn’t want to end my life like my brother did,” he says.
That night he had a vivid dream “of myself preaching and a lot of people standing around me. I must have been outside somewhere because I had a hat and coat on.”
That dream would foreshadow Harrison’s life. Ordained as a minister, he moved to Indianapolis in 1993 to lead Barnes United Methodist Church on the Near Northwest Side. It’s in one of six neighborhoods that public safety officials have identified as having an out-sized crime problem.
Inspired by a group of violence interrupters working in Boston, he helped form 10 Point nearly 20 years ago. The faith-based, anti-violence group patrols high-crime neighborhoods. In that role, he spends a lot of time outdoors, just like in the dream.
“I was willing to step out and to put my faith into action when others were reluctant to do it,” Harrison says. “I knew I had to do something and I knew I could contribute to this issue of addressing violence.”
On a cold and damp night during one of their patrols, members of the 10 Point Coalition come across a group of men on a dark street corner, huddling around a fire in a steel trash can. They greet Harrison and his group with a warmth that matches the fire.
Many of the 10 Point members flanking Harrison grew up in the neighborhoods they now try to keep safe. They have lives touched by violence as well and some have troubled pasts that include prison time.
It allows them, Harrison says, to better understand and connect with the young people they’re trying to keep straight.
“I tell them, ‘look at me,’” Harrison says. “‘I made a decision not to follow that path and look at what I’ve become because I made a good decision.’”
Message on repeat
Along with these patrols, Ten Point often also shows up at murder scenes, to keep the peace and act as a buffer between onlookers and the police. They have to absorb a lot of anger, pain and sorrow. “We are a sponge out there,” Harrison says.
The media shows up to those crime scenes too. At a daytime murder in the driveway of a home at East 34th Street and North Sherman Drive, Harrison checked in with the police chaplain and fired off some tweets with messages of anti-violence. A few moments later he was doing an interview with a local TV news crew.
Harrison has been repeating this routine for years. When he was surrounded by cameras after a meeting with the chief of police this summer, a reporter even pointed it out, noting Harrison’s quotes could be replayed for the same effect.
“Yes, I’m tired of talking about it,” Harrison replied.
Harrison’s prominence has much to do with his visibility. He’s at the crime scenes, the vigils and community meetings. The media has gotten to know him. And he’s always willing to talk.
“I think maybe my role now is to be the voice, the conscience of this city,” Harrison said during one of several lengthy interviews.
But he’s more polarizing within the African-American community than media coverage suggests. While they credit his work and respect his role, other prominent figures say Harrison does not speak for them.
There is a “false narrative that has been floating around which suggests he is the de facto spokesperson and guru of the black community,” says Brishon Bond, the family resource coordinator at CAFE, a Far Eastside community center.
“It has been that he is the standard, the default when it comes to a response regarding crime in the community. He is the go-to face and the go-to quote,” says Brandon Randall, a community organizer and youth mentor, who is acquainted with Harrison through his work.
Ten Point’s role as grief counselors is fine, Randall says, but the city should be hearing more from criminal justice experts on violence reduction.
“When (Harrison and 10 Point) are being sought out for suggestions on crime reduction, I just feel like there should be people who have that background” giving that advice, Randall says.
Harrison also sometimes gets caught up in the politics of the moment. He considered a run for mayor this year. Rev. John Girton, a fellow pastor on the Northwest Side who’s become increasingly outspoken on crime reduction, suggests city leaders have used Harrison to appear in touch with issues.
“His being embedded makes him consistent, because they’re going to call him every time something happens,” Girton says, adding “the media needs somebody to turn to and here he is, so they’re going to keep turning to him.”
Harrison’s drawn ire for taking controversial stands, such as calling for the use of stop-and-frisk, as he did this summer. That police practice of random searches has been deemed illegal in court and racist by civil-rights groups. It caused the black community in Indy to “go bonkers,” says Girton.
Harrison stands by his call for stop-and-frisk, saying he’s still waiting for someone to present a better idea.
Prepared for the task
While he doesn’t turn away from the spotlight, Harrison says he never set out to stand in it.
“I never realized that all I went through as a young man growing up would be key to what I’m doing today,” he says, “but certainly it prepared me for the task that God has given me today.”
Harrison, now 55, begins most days with a 6 a.m. run. It’s his quiet time to collect his thoughts and pray.
All too often, his day ends late at night, in the chaos and emotion of a murder scene. News cameras rolling, his face bathed in the blues and reds of emergency lights, his tireless voice, repeating his call for peace.
Trying to make peace
Nights out with the 10 Point Coalition
They show up just as the sun starts to go down and put on their uniform, a fluorescent yellow vest.
After a prayer, they set out, on foot and by car, keeping an eye on their neighborhood. A quiet night can change quickly, though. A phone call notifies members of the Indianapolis 10 Point Coalition that there’s been a murder, the exact thing they’re out trying to prevent.
But they can’t be everywhere, so now they’re surrounded by grief and police tape.
The 10 Point Coalition has been walking the streets of Indianapolis’ high-crime neighborhoods for nearly two decades, relying on their own experiences and connections to the streets to try to keep people out of violence. And when it happens, comforting friends and family of the victims.
Murders still happen. Leaders of 10 Point say they need more people, that there are too many dangerous neighborhoods to watch over. But their efforts work, they say. It’s just harder to count to the shootings and homicides they’ve prevented.
Handling a 10-96
How police officers are learning to confront the mentally unstable
When Indianapolis police officer Michael Kasper arrived to a call of trespassing at the Wheeler Mission this summer, an older woman was already in handcuffs and quickly losing her cool.
Kasper, a military veteran who is fairly new to IMPD, was the second officer on this eastside scene. He patrols the neighborhood around the New York Street and Sherman Drive focus area.
The woman had been arguing with people at the Wheeler Mission, saying she owns the building. It wasn’t the first time this has happened.
But now she’s standing next to a patrol car, her plastic bag dumped out on the hood, the contents of which are fast food scraps and an empty pill bottle.
She repeats her name to the first officer, but quickly gets agitated when the name she gives doesn’t pop up in the police records. That’s when Kasper steps in. “You take any medications?” he asks.
“No. No. I’m normal,” she says. “I take blood pressure medication and that’s it.”
Kasper tries to change the topic of conversation and distract her in order to calm her down, “because [mentally ill people] will turn combative on you real quick,” he says.
“She’s what we call 10-96, so she’s got mental health issues,” Kasper says. “You don’t want to argue with them, whatever their delusion is.”
Kasper has been through a mental illness training program now standard for IMPD officers.
Paramedics and firefighters arrive a few minutes later, to evaluate her blood pressure. Now sitting on a step, still in handcuffs, she continues to be combative, telling paramedics to get out of her face.
She’s taken to the hospital. As the ambulance pulls out, a firefighter laments about the lack of true psychiatric care she’ll receive that evening.
If someone is threatening harm, officers have the option of sending them to a hospital for what is known as an immediate detention. That gives doctors up to 24 hours to assess what help the person needs. Often times, those with mental illnesses simply return to the street.
In the neighborhood Kasper patrols, the Near Eastside, residents are 195 percent more likely to have medical services called to their home for a mental illness, according to the city’s public safety department. Fourteen percent of all the mental health runs in the city go into one of the six focus areas, a 239 percent higher rate than the rest of Indianapolis.
Sometimes the people who need mental health services the most know the least about them. On top of the stigmas associated with mental illness, they often struggle with the lack of family support or income, health insurance and transportation.
When Indianapolis police answered a different trespassing call at an eastside car dealership earlier this year, they found a half-naked, agitated man lying on the floor.
A cellphone video, shot by a witness, demonstrates that de-escalating a crisis doesn’t always go as planned.
“On your belly,” officers shout over and over, but they’re met with an unsatisfactory response.
“No! I’m going to take my [expletive] pants off. I’ll take my pants off!” the man shouts, and proceeds to do. Officers then tasered him and beat him with batons as he screams louder.
The video was shown in a recent crisis intervention training for police recruits. They watched as officers in the video struggle to subdue the man.
Every police run is unpredictable, but dealing with someone in mental distress requires special skills of communicating and listening, says IMPD training commander Major James Cleek.
“When they’re in crisis, it may not make sense to us but it is extremely real to them,” Cleek says, and if officers realize that, he says it can save lives.
Cleek is a founder of IMPD’s crisis intervention program and training, now standard for all police recruits since the sheriff and police departments merged in 2007. All veteran officers are on track to be trained as well.
Southwest District Commander David Hofmann is a big advocate for crisis intervention training, or CIT. Hofmann’s district includes the the neighborhood around West 16th Street and Tibbs Avenue, another one of the public safety department’s focus areas, singled out for having significantly more crime, poverty and mental health issues than other areas of the city.
“I think it’s helpful. First of all, it gets people the services that they really need, rather than for example arresting somebody for some psychotic behaviors,” Hofmann says.
Reaching out to follow up
Four years ago, a crisis counselor with Midtown Mental Health was assigned to Hofmann’s district. A part of Linda Linn’s job is following up by phone with people who have been immediately detained.
On one call, she’s trying to make sure the person is not still in crisis and to help connect them to mental health services. Linn says the job has changed her perception of police work.
“There are a lot of officers that are doing mediation, they’re trying to solve problems, some of them are doing old-fashioned social work,” Linn says.
There’s a desire among many officers to get people help, Linn says. “They don’t want to arrest people,” she says, but rather they say “’let’s get this fixed.’”
But crisis intervention isn’t failsafe, and when police confront mentally ill people who are armed, the consequences can be deadly. Take the case of Alex Myers, who was shot and killed this spring as he sat on his front porch holding a rifle.
Such incidents raise a lot of questions, but IUPUI researcher Brad Ray says they also illustrate the flaws in the mental-health system. “We just continue to cut back on mental health services,” Ray says. “I think that’s the big underlying problem here.”
Crisis intervention training is also meant to keep officers from harm, and Hofmann wonders if it could have prevented a tragedy that still haunts him.
Crisis intervention was brand new to IMPD back in 2004, when Kenneth Anderson killed his own mother then turned his guns on officers, wounding four and killing Officer Jake Laird.
“What if we could have got some services to him before he went on that rampage that night?” Hoffman asks.
To date, more than 1,000 IMPD officers have been trained in crisis intervention, and crisis counselors like Linn are being added in other districts.
A state law named after Laird allows the police to confiscate and hold weapons from any person they suspect is mentally unstable or dangerous – even if the person hasn’t committed a crime.
“Welcome to Squad 10,” says firefighter Adam Arkins as he and his partner, Derek Huff, roll out of Indianapolis Fire Department Station 10 on the northeast side.
They’re meeting up with the station’s ladder truck a few blocks up the street, headed into the focus area surrounding East 38th Street and North Sherman Drive.
But they’re not responding to a fire or medical emergency; they’re trying to prevent them. A partnership between the Indianapolis Fire Department and the Red Cross has been installing smoke detectors in people’s homes for free.
Arkins, Huff and other firefighters, along with Red Cross volunteers donning red vests, go door to door on this sunny afternoon, greeting residents with a loud knock and a smile.
They offer to check batteries or install a smoke detector. Several of the homes on this block are boarded up and empty, though.
More than half of Indianapolis’ 18 fire fatalities in 2014 happened in a focus area neighborhood. Inspectors found a lack of working smoke detectors in several of those homes.
When money is tight, fire officials say, buying new batteries for a smoke detector falls to the bottom of the list.
IFD chief Ernest Malone praises the smoke detector distribution program for saving lives, telling stories of residents who escaped fire just days after IFD installed a smoke detector.
On this afternoon, the crew of Station 10 takes just a few moments, using a ladder and a power drill, to install a smoke detector.
The team leaves the front porch of one home Arkins and the other firefighters know well. “They were regular frequent flyers of ours,” Arkins says.
Station 10 used to respond to medical calls at the home on a regular basis. Less so these days.
”We’ve helped them throughout the years (to learn) how to take care of themselves, what they need to do to avoid having to go to the hospital all the time,” he says. “And apparently it’s seemed to work because we haven’t been there in quite some time. It’s pretty nice and refreshing to see.”
On the drive back to the station, firefighter Huff says there’s a big difference between showing up to a home for an emergency and knocking on the door to install a smoke detector.
“When you meet people, it’s because it’s a dramatic moment in their life,” he says. “So this is nice, to go and meet them on a different level.”
Along with the IFD and Red Cross efforts, the city’s office of re-entry conducted two knock-and-talks in 2015.
Workers from several city agencies made up Neighborhood Enhancement Teams, visiting 1,400 homes in each of the focus areas, according to Julie Fidler, who works on re-entry issues for the public safety department.
“Even just something like that can be the cause to let someone know we care about them,” she says. “What it does is gives them just a little bit of hope. That somebody somewhere cares about them being a citizen.”
Those outreach efforts are scheduled to resume in the spring.
‘Just giving some love’
These door-to-door efforts are powered by a mix of city agencies and volunteers with a desire to help.
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of volunteers huddle in front of a mobile healthcare bus parked on a corner in the Haughville neighborhood.
The faith-based Indy Dream Center is beginning an adopt-a-block effort in this westside neighborhood, another focus area. Organizers wanted to bring the national “dream center” model, founded in Los Angeles, to Indy.
They were encouraged by Eskenazi Hospital, which is county-owned, to start first in a focus area.
The few dozen volunteers break off into groups and begin to work their way up the street. At the second home one team visits, they meet 83-year-old Charlene Bellamy.
She points to pictures on the mantle of the kids and grandkids that check in on her now that she lives here alone.
“I’ve been over here about 50 (years),” she says. “I moved to Indianapolis, well my husband did, we all moved. And I came over here and there was a lady that had this house for sale and we got together. And I done bought it and done paid it off.”
But now the outside railing is loose and the steps are beginning to crumble.
As Bellamy sits on a recliner in the middle of her living room, still in her pajamas, volunteers tell her everything they’re offering is free of charge. “We’re just giving some love,” says Kathy Baumgardner.
“Well, I know it must be free if I’m getting it,” Bellamy replies with a laugh.
Money has been tight recently for Bellamy. “Since my renter moved upstairs, that cut my little money down,” she says.
The volunteers also find a leaky roof. And that Bellamy has a love for bacon.
When group moves on to another house, they hear a dose of frustration from a woman about the decline of the neighborhood. The homeowner says the downfall began when the gangs showed up on her street. She needs help cleaning out the rental house she owns next door.
Outside, Pastor Angel Huerta reflects on the encounter.
“As we just heard her, they’re ready to see change in their neighborhood and that’s what we’re here for, to make this a stronger community for families to live in once again,” he says.
That’s what these volunteers and public safety officials are hoping to capitalize on. The Dream Center wants to expand its work in each of the six focus areas within a year.
The volunteers returned to this block the following week to begin working on Charlene Bellamy’s home, and deliver bacon as they promised.
It’s a brightly blue-painted building on a corner in Haughville, a near westside Indianapolis neighborhood that’s one of the city’s most violent. There’s no sign outside, but enter through a chainlink fence and then a worn door and you’ll find Jason Ward.
He’s tall, with slicked hair, and walks with a limp, at times bumping into the furniture in his modest office. There are much larger re-entry programs in Indianapolis than this, but for Ward, it’s his constantly ringing phone and these two rooms behind a corner store.
This was a bar when Ward bought it nearly 30 years ago. He made money from the bar, and he became an alcoholic there, too. But when he got sober, Ward found a new calling.
He turned the ramshackle building into a re-entry center in the mid-1990s and runs a snack and cigarette stand up front, which employs some of the ex-felons he aids. Now he provides tutoring, financial counseling and job placement for young adults coming out of prison.
Ward tries to drive a positive mentality into the people he serves. That incremental improvements, like a bank account or a job, go a long way. “And then some of your worries may not be over with, but you do have a chance that you can overcome this,” he says between phone calls.
Early exposure to counseling and services, now beginning to start years before a felon is released, is an important part of keeping an offender from returning to crime. Studies show well over half of them will reoffend.
Even with lots of help, they face incredible barriers -- from employment to mental health, education and addiction -- to starting their lives over.
Re-entry services are overstretched and sometimes underfunded. Returning felons have to pay for most aspects of probation, from monthly fees to drug testing services. Not having the cash can send an ex-offender back to prison on a technical violation.
Just wandering around
The younger a person is the first time they commit a crime, the higher the likelihood they’ll return to prison, a place that doesn’t help a teenager get straight, Ward says. “It’s nothing but to make you worse. Especially someone that young.”
Steven Buford is one of the people Ward is helping at Westside Community Ministry. He’s 25 and well-tattooed, some of the ink work his own.
Buford went to prison the first time at 18 on an armed robbery conviction. He says he was hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Getting locked up only exposed him to more bad influences, and over the next six years, he cycled in and out of prison, serving his last sentence for theft.
“I didn’t have no goals or anything really set in my life at the time,” he says. “I was already just looking for something to cling on to, a boy or a man, or a gang or something, just looking for a little guidance or something. I was just out there wandering around.”
Buford gets excited easily, but his wide smile quickly fades when he starts talking about his struggles. He’s dealt with depression -- a common problem for ex-felons -- and he feels burdened by pressures to provide for himself, troubles with his family, and raising a baby girl.
“It just weighs on me. I feel like I gotta do more, and I’m 25 and I ain’t got too much done,” he says. “I feel like I should be ahead in life.”
He’s far behind. He didn’t finish high school, and he doesn’t have a driver’s license. On top of that, Ward says many employers shy away from ex-felons like Buford.
“Steven has a robbery conviction, which is a hellified thing,” Ward says. It takes eight years for Buford’s charges to be eligible for expungement, wiped off his record. It’ll take that long for Buford, Ward says, “for him to even get a fair chance.”
Buford has been out of prison since the summer of 2014, which means nearly seven more years before he can try to get the convictions expunged, seven more years of a hard time getting by.
He’s strung together some work, but they’re mostly temp warehousing positions on the outskirts of the city, and only last a few weeks.
He had worse luck at businesses around the west side. “They say, ‘your background.’ They see my paperwork and it’s like ‘that’s crazy.’ It really bothers me though sometimes, but I can’t give up,” he says.
He complains of headaches and dizziness and trouble focusing because of ADHD and other neurological problems, and he says they make it difficult for him to work the few long hours he’s been able to find. Ward has tried to find employment for Buford that incorporates his art skills.
“If I find something that actually suits me, I’m in it,” Buford says, “instead of me just keep getting knocked off my feet.”
Lately, though, he’s been doing odd jobs, hauling scrap metal for a guy in the neighborhood. But it doesn’t pay much. “Hundred dollars don’t get you nowhere, a couple hundreds don’t get you nowhere,” he says. “Especially when you got to buy Pampers and formula.”
Building a foundation
Buford is trying to get back on the disability assistance he lost when he went to prison. While it means he can’t work a formal job, it’s one of the few social programs he’s eligible for. It’s almost impossible for some ex-felons to get other assistance like food stamps or subsidized housing.
Buford has found housing, moving into a home a few blocks from Ward’s Haughville office with his girlfriend and their six-month-old daughter.
“Building my foundation, right here, building it, trying to make it solid, hard rock,” he says in the living room one afternoon. “I can always come here. There’s food in the refrigerator. You can never just say I’m suffering if your bills (are) paid and you got food in your refrigerator.”
Buford’s girlfriend is older, and she’s an ex-felon, too. But she’s a positive influence on Buford. He says she keeps him straight. Her steady paycheck, from a job at Ward’s corner store, is a big help. It’s also where the two met, striking up conversation after he bought her a bag of chips.
After a tour of his new house (the garage needs some work), Buford reflects on what it will take for him to stay here long term, and not in a prison cell.
“Oh, I ain’t even thinking about going back,” he exclaims. “I ain’t thinking about going back, but what would it take? To get to work. Just something, a job or something. Money.”
Just setting the intention not to return to prison is a major mental hurdle to clear, re-entry experts say. “If you don’t have that mindset, you aren’t necessarily going to be successful,” says Julie Fidler, who works on housing issues in the Mayor’s Office of Ex-Offender Re-Entry.
About 9,000 people will leave a state prison this year and return to Indianapolis, according to the re-entry office. According to Fidler’s tracking, many ex-offenders settle in one of the city’s six “focus area” neighborhoods, identified by public safety officials for their high rates of violent crime and blight. One of them is Haughville, the neighborhood where Buford grew up, and where he’s now trying to make it. They’re far from ideal places to turn a life around.
“If there’s a lot of unkempt abandoned homes, and high weeds and grass, and trash laying around, and nobody cares enough to even pick it up, why do I, as a re-entrant, have any cause to have any hope?” Fidler says.
Indianapolis police found that 84 percent of the suspects they arrested last year for criminal homicide had a criminal history, a statistic that’s rising, up from 70 percent four years earlier. So rehabilitating criminals is key to preventing killings. Brian Reeder, the city’s director of re-entry, says that must happen well before a criminal is released from prison and long after they get home.
“If you rehabilitate a person to the point that they are even thinking about changing their lifestyle, and then they come back into the community and they’re forced back into a dysfunctional situation and we haven’t addressed those systemic issues,” they’re highly likely to reoffend, Reeder says.
“There are a lot of things that go beyond just a person getting out of prison and starting on the road to quote-unquote ‘recovery,’” he says.
It took Steven Buford a long time to reach the tipping point toward recovery. But without work, he spends a lot of idle time at home. He’s trying to put himself in the right situations -- his girlfriend is encouraging him to try art school -- and evolve from his past.
“Then again, I could have just stayed out of trouble.” he says. “I could have been somebody. I wouldn’t have to deal with this. I would be a whole completely different person.”
But trouble is still there, which for Buford, is smoking marijuana.
He got caught again in February for possession of marijuana and driving without a license. He’s hoping to avoid prison time and it’s probable he’ll just serve probation. But given his record, it’s a felony offense that could send him back to prison for a year.
It’s the middle of a warm spring Monday afternoon at the Mays’ home. There’s homemade lasagna baking in the oven, but two-year-old Rere didn’t get his nap and he’s being a little extra terrible. It’s also school vacation week and his older brother and sister are home, too.
They live here with their grandmother, Margaret Mays. She’s 68, and she’s caring for them all on her own. Her husband died three decades ago, a victim of homicide, and her daughter struggles with substance abuse.
So Mays adopted her grandchildren, seven in all. The three youngest -- 13-year-old Darrell, 7-year-old Sharr and Rere -- are still at home.
“There’s no way I could leave my grandchildren out there, I couldn’t do that,” she says. “Who’s better to take care of them but me?”
Mays will be 84 when Rere (his real name is Lonzo), turns 18. Darrell was Rere’s age when his own father was slain, and he’s well aware of just how much he depends on Mays.
“If I didn’t have her, I don’t know what I’d do,” Darrell says of his grandmother, “because they’d probably put me in a foster home, I don’t know who I’d be staying with. So if she dies, I don’t know who I’m gonna go to.”
Mays has incredible strength and energy, which she credits to the grace of God, praying for a little more during the few quiet moments she can get.
Some nights, she only finds a few hours for sleep, “but I have to do it because I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here,” she says. “I want to make sure they’re going to be okay so I can rest in peace.”
There are twice as many single-family households in Indianapolis’ six focus-area neighborhoods, as compared with the rest of the city, an environment researchers say is more likely to foster young people getting involved in crime. And though there’s no definitive measure of how many of those families are headed by single grandparents like Mays, community leaders believe a growing number of them are taking on the full weight of raising young children.
“Their lives would probably be so much different if their parents were here with them, caring for them,” Mays says about the seven kids she’s raised. “But it’s just me.”
Man of the house
Darrell is 13 now and still very much a kid, with a love of basketball. But he also has a man-of-the-house mentality about him, fit for an adolescent. He dreams of a basketball hoop in the driveway, WiFi and cable TV.
He’s lucky to have a male role model in addition to a loving grandmother. Anthony Beverly, who also runs a small organization called Stop The Violence, regularly takes Darrell out to dinner and stops by often to keep tabs on him.
“He take care of me,” Darrell says. “That’s my father, basically. He’s taking my father’s place.”
As Darrell dribbles a basketball in the driveway, the two make plans for their next meetup. Then Beverly is gone and Darrell heads down the sidewalk to shoot hoops at the park around the corner.
Back inside, Mays is pulling the lasagna out of the oven and tries to get Rere to sit still long enough to eat. She hasn’t always had the food to put in the oven.
“I found myself in a situation last year that was so, almost devastated,” she says. Rere had just come to live with them, and on her beautician’s salary, she couldn’t afford the extra cost of caring for him.
“I thought I was going to die. I thought me and the children was going to starve to death,” she says.
She spent months going from food pantry to food pantry until family friends intervened and child welfare checks for Rere kicked in. Even Darrell does all he can to take care of his siblings.
“Any money that I make, I split it with her and the kids,” he says. “I try to like buy stuff, as much as I can for the household.”
When he won $50 dollars in a swimming camp contest, “I didn’t spend no money on me. I spent that on them. I gave her gas money and I bought the baby diapers and milk. And there went my money.”
As mature as Darrell is, he still needs his grandmother and Anthony Beverly looking out for him, like when classmates tried to get him a join their gang -- they do this by beating you up. It’s called “going 30.”
“I went 30 with all of them. You got to defend yourself when you go 30 because if you don’t, they gonna be talking about you,” he says, “call you names, punks and all that stuff.”
He was able to switch into a different class with help from his grandmother and mentor and get out of the gang. But that story doesn’t always end that way.
Getting to kids earlier
In Indianapolis, the number of homicide victims and suspects under the age of 18 in Indianapolis has doubled in the past three years. That’s less than 10 percent of the total, but that doesn’t make it any less troubling. Community leaders point to a disregard for life among youth, driven by a lack of caring adults in their lives. Instead, it’s gangs more often raising children.
Gang recruitment at school is common, beginning in grades younger than Darrell’s, turning people to the crime life earlier and earlier. So those trying to prevent violence are starting earlier too.
A group of fidgety first graders files into a room at IPS School 15 on Indy’s Near Eastside, a racially diverse, but challenged neighborhood, with high rates of poverty, prostitution and drug addiction.
When James Taylor -- J.T., he goes by -- rings a prayer bowl, the room goes quiet, for a few minutes at least.
Taylor is a laid-back 73-year-old who often wears sandals and a t-shirt. His long dreadlocks have turned grey during his 30 years working for the Peace Learning Center. The mentoring organization has expanded its reach into schools in struggling Indy neighborhoods like this one, and Taylor is embedded here.
He reads the class picture books about getting along and being respectful. It may not seem like much, but he says such lessons can be absent at home. Gangs increasingly fill a void that a parent should occupy.
“Our kids just want to be accepted, loved and honored,” Taylor says. “And they’ll get that wherever they can get it.”
On the surface, gangs appear to provide that. “That’s how they get our kids because our youth don’t get the community support that they need,” he says.
An after-school program where teenage boys shoot hoops and get help with their homework can also be a place to find mentorship.
Brishon Bond keeps a watchful eye over the basketball court at the Community Alliance of the Far Eastside center at East 38th Street and Post Road. It’s in another neighborhood where high rates of crime concern public safety officials.
The court has low ceilings, ruling out any deep three-point shots, but it’s still the main draw to show up after school. Bond sees teenage aggression on the court overflow quickly.
“Anger is just prevalent all over in these neighborhoods,” he says. “The difference now is a fight can lead to a gun.”
Bond is trying to instill a lesson many never had -- to be able to apologize, let something go, and to move on.
At School 15, children are learning the same thing. As the young students depart J.T.’s class, a half-dozen of the boys stop to give him a hug.
“I don’t ever turn a kid’s hug down, they might not get hugged at home,” he says. “If I can be that stable essence for 20 minutes or 20 seconds in that kid’s life, I’m willing to spend that time.”
It will take that time and more to shepherd these kids as they grow up to be the kind of young men who can forgive an errant elbow on the basketball court. Along the way, Taylor says, the hugs will always be free.
Called to serve and protect
An 'authentic' cop goes all-in in a tough Indy neighborhood
Data-driven law enforcement replaced neighborhood policing a long time ago. Some in Indianapolis, like the mayor and chief of police, want to go back. They want officers to know their beats, and for the communities to know the officers.
In one of Indianapolis’ most distressed neighborhoods, community policing is already making a comeback.
Adam Perkins is a fully-sworn Indianapolis police officer with an original assignment on the Near Eastside: to make relationships, not arrests.
Perkins’ view of the neighborhood has changed since he began patrolling last year. And being involved in the Near Eastside is more than just a day job now.
At Josh’s house, the blinds are drawn and the front door window is covered in duct tape.
“I stay to myself. It’s the only way you’re going to survive long around here,” he says.
It’s hot, and a fan is cranked up high as he watches an Adam Sandler movie while his one-year-old daughter sits in a car seat on the floor.
Josh is 23 and lives in a small home with his grandmother on an unfrequented street across from the highway.
He’s short on words and often on specifics. WFYI is only using his first name because he admitted to a lot of criminal misdoings over several interviews.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, when I was young I did a lot of bad stuff. I ain’t gonna just look you down your face and say I ain’t never did nothing wrong,” he says. “But yeah, I did some crime, like any other person would do.”
I met Josh last summer at the mobile food pantry run by Gleaners and the city’s public safety department out of a church gym near the corner of 29th and MLK, walking distance from his house.
The food giveaway, run by Gleaners and the public safety department, is one of the ways the city’s been trying to build trust and meet needs in neighborhoods with outsized rates of violent crime.
To calm a rising homicide rate, Indianapolis public safety has been trying a big social experiment: reaching deeper into the city’s most distressed neighborhoods with services like mental health care, food giveaways and school mentoring.
“How’d I get involved in the crime life?”
In Josh’s neighborhood, homicides and shootings happen at rates eight times higher than the city average.
Residents here complain of vacant houses ignored by the city and long-gone businesses. Decades of economic disinvestment and the legacy of racist lending practices like redlining have taken their toll. Unemployment rates are higher and educational attainment is lower than in the rest of Indy. A quarter of its residents, including Josh, don’t have a high-school diploma. He dropped out of school, and into crime.
“How’d I get involved in the crime life?” he says during one interview. “Well I grew up around it. When I was young I just wanted to be like the drug dealers that was out there. I wanted to ride in the big car they had, the rims, the money.”
He is thinking more about his future. And his daughter’s. He’s trying finish school and he says he doesn’t steal like he did in his youth. But that’s not true of all his old friends.
“Some of them (still) doing what they do, but some of them changed from it,” he says. “I ain’t trying to die nowhere around here. I want to die from a natural cause, whereas a person just shoots me or something.”
Josh owns a gun he says he’s only used once, when he was a bystander in a drive-by shooting and fired back.
“If I step out that door, like sometimes, I’m gonna carry a pistol with me because you never know. I ain’t gonna lie, I still hang out on the streets,” Josh says. “You never know, people out here (are) just scandalous, so you gotta think, it’s either going to be you or him.”
He’s had a few stints in county jail, mostly for missed court dates after being caught driving without a license.
Job prospects for Josh are minimal. There are few employers in the neighborhood and he lacks the necessary education and skills to get a good job. He’s left to doing a mix of things to make money, all of them under the table.
“There all types of ways around here to make money,” Josh says. “I do what I gotta do to make money.”
He mows lawns and does other odd jobs. His grandmother lends him spending cash. But he says he also sells drugs.
He keeps women, often older women, company for money, too. He was cagey about just what that entails but eventually admitted sometimes those interactions lead to sex. “It depends, I don’t consider myself no prostitute though,” he says.
Josh talks about finding a good job, but he knows the things he does now won’t help him.
“Unless you got a degree that say you’d (done) a good job at criminalizing and stuff, we gonna give you a degree in it,” he says. “It’s impossible to get a degree in this.”
He dreams about moving to the suburbs and raising his daughter in a better environment, “because I don’t want my daughter growing up and seeing a lot of drugs and all that. And I don’t want my son, if I have another kid, I don’t want them growing up and thinking it’s okay.”
Josh doesn’t get along well with the mother of his daughter and sometimes goes months without seeing her. Josh’s father wasn’t around much when he was growing up, so his mom and grandmother mostly raised him.
“I wanna be a dad my dad couldn’t be. Like one of them white dads, you know, they take their son to the ballgame, I wanna take my daughter to the beautician. You know, have good times,” he says.
He’s tried to find work through employment agencies, but he’d fail the drug screens because he smokes pot. He refers to it as his “depression pill.”
“Let us help him”
This new approach for public safety includes more than just police, but also churches, nonprofits, health and social services. Still the question remains: what can it do for a guy like Josh, who wants to better his life but doesn’t trust the police?
In a church basement a few blocks from Josh’s home, the church and city’s department of public safety are hosting an open house to bring city and community services to neighborhood residents. Most of them are older, and they’re here, moving from table to table, learning how to use Crime Stoppers or make complaints to code enforcement about a vacant home on the block.
Troy Riggs is here too. He designed the focus area approach and is now chief of the Indianapolis police. After hearing a description of Josh’s lifestyle, Riggs said it’s all too likely to “end tragically or violently.”
“Let us help him and if we can help as a police department we will,” Riggs says.
Riggs was glad Josh took advantage of the food giveaways last summer. “And maybe we need to talk more about job opportunities in those wraparound services. So, what he’s dealing with, we have to do a better job as a department and I think our community has to do a better job as well,” Riggs says.
How does the church pastor, John Girton, get a guy like Josh to show up to an event like this?
“What does it? Building trust, right?” he says. “Because they’ve had so many people that’ve made promises that haven’t kept their promises. I’m talking about people that’ve said they love them.”
Girton says community leaders like himself need to get out of the church and to the young men and women in the neighborhood.
“And I have to remind that 23-year-old that guess what? One day you’re going to be 33. And another day you’re going to be 43. And so you have to ask the question of yourself, do I want to be doing at 33 what I’m doing at 23?” Girton says. “Because if you don’t, then the only way to change your future is to start right now.”
Checking in with Josh over the past several months to ask how he’s been, his usual answer is “same old thing.” The focus area initiative is still in its infancy, not yet two years old. Its mission is to not be the same old thing for fighting crime. But whether it can reach everyone remains to be seen.