Rethinking Crime in Northwest Indiana
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In July 2013, Gary, Indiana Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson asked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to send 60 state troopers to help with the city’s rising number of homicides. Beginning in the summer, Lakeshore Public Radio host and reporter Steve Walsh concentrated on new attempts to curb the city’s violence, and highlighted the potential barriers to cooperation in Northwest Indiana.
Spurred by headlines, local police departments began negotiating for create a special unit to look some of the areas hit hardest by crime in Lake County. Under the direction of East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker, a former FBI agent, the STOP Team became an effort by several urban and suburban departments to pool their efforts in neighborhoods that had seen the most crime. They use a data driven approach to target areas which have seen the greatest increase in drug and violent crime, using statistics from Dr. Joseph Ferrendino, a criminologist at Indiana University Northwest.
These types of task forces are particularly difficult to create in northwest Indiana. Lake County is broken into several smaller communities. After the last US Census, Gary isn’t even the largest city in the county. The county Sheriff’s police patrol a relatively small portion of the population. Bringing more than 18 departments under the same task force had never been tried.
Highlighting the difficulty, at the time the murder rate was spiking in Gary, Lake County communities were struggling with how to consolidate their 911 services, as required by state law. Some communities rejected several proposals to merge with the county dispatch center. The concerns often broke down along the fault lines between rural, suburban and urban districts.
Becker had run the FBI’s Gang Responsive Investigative Team until 2007, before becoming police chief in Portage and then East Chicago. His experience and reputation with each of the local departments seemed to engender trust and breed early cooperation. By the end of the year, they were still operating and expanding the number of units involved. Gary Police Chief Wade Ingram said the STOP Team was a key part of his plan to control the homicide rate in the city.
Soon after he was hired, Ingram began his own initiative to visit the families of each homicide victim in the city. It was a way to connect with a city that was seeing a spike in violence, after years of declining homicide rates. Reporter Steve Walsh road with the chief in October, just as Gary equaled the number of murders for all of 2012.
The homicide totals were still less than half of what they were in the 1990s, when Gary was often dubbed the murder capital of the US. Rather than approve troopers to help with the spike in violence, Gov. Pence offered a state police assessment of the Gary Police Department. The Indiana State Police assessment was released the same morning as Walsh drove with the chief to the homes of victims. The study pointed out long-standing flaws with the department, which could make curbing the number of homicides more difficult for Gary. The study said the mayor’s office and city council hampered the chief’s ability to run police department.
The story was the culmination of a year-long look at the escalating violence. As the chief traveled with a group of local ministers, he put a human face on the tragic loss of life for our listeners.
The entry includes produced pieces, first with Backer, which aired in August, followed by a piece with Chief Ingram, which aired October 10, 2013 on Lakeshore Public Radio. The entry also includes a compilation of two stand-alone interviews with Indiana State Police Commander Dave Bursten and followed by Gary FOP President Sam Abegg, which aired live just after the Indiana State Police released its report, critical of Gary police. They were interviewed by live on Lakeshore Public Radio’s daily public affairs program Regionally Speaking, hosted by Steve Walsh. Their interviews were cut and re-aired together locally as a segment during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, beginning October 7, 2013. These were two of several interviews with key decision makers, which addressed the causes and potential solutions to Gary’s rising murder rate, which aired throughout 2013, including interviews with police from throughout Northwest Indiana, the mayor of Gary, the Indiana State Police and the Gov. Pence.