Staunching Gary’s Public Health Problem of Violence
By: Hilary Powell
The city of Gary is suffering by expert diagnosis — infected with a string of shootings this year. There were 20 murders in the first six months according to the Gary Police Department.
“I love my city, I support it, (but) I don’t personally like the shootings,” says 17-year-old Marisha Bailey.
“Certainly, one homicide is too many,” mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, adds.
“Violence is always a public health concern,” says Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Health Department. “When you’re dead, I don’t you can get more health-conscious than that.”
It’s a public health problem but one treated by officers and community members, not just doctors.
“Public safety officers, the city administration, you know, everybody,” says Danita Johnson Hughes, president & CEO of Edgewater Behavioral Services. “The social service agencies, the school systems, all coming together and looking at this as a community issue.”
She says area violence is a public health concern because it affects the masses.
“Because that actually undergirds everything,” she says. “If your community is not healthy, then, it’s not going to be healthy in any other way. Crime’s going to be high.”
In 2013, Gary’s homicide rate was 64 per 100 thousand residents, according to statistics from the Gary Police Department and Indiana University Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
This week, the mayor set new crime-fighting initiatives, including hiring 14 new officers and appointing a new police chief, Larry McKinley, after announcing Wade Ingram’s resignation.
“We’ve had some significant challenges, but the good news is we are focused on what we can do to improve the state of violence in our community,” Freeman Wilson says. “It’s about how safe you feel. It’s about how you grow old and whether you have the opportunity to do that in your own community.”
Answering the call to make streets safer is the Gary Police Department, which McKinley says is underpaid and still mourning the death of a fellow officer shot to death on the job: officer Jeffrey Westerfield.
“There are three immediate issues that I will work to resolve within the first 90 days as chief of police,” he says. “The first is improving morale in the department.”
There is also public morale to contend with. The mayor says in the past 60 days, the residents of Gary have seen some of the most brazen crimes the city has seen in decades, including a May 2014 shooting death of a man in this McDonald’s parking lot, just steps from the Methodist Hospital, and less than a fourth of a mile from the Gary Police Department.
“It happened at one of the community centers or the centers of the community where people gather,” the mayor says. “It’s a gathering place. So all of things, um, are of grave concern. It happened in a place where a lot of children live in those apartments across from the McDonald’s.”
The city logged just over one murder a week in 2013 with 54 homicides according police data.
Johnson Hughes says what happens to the body affects the mind.
“You cannot separate the head from the body,” she says. “Those types of stressors can lead to mental, emotional, psychological problems.”
Centers for Disease Control research presented at an April 2012 congressional briefing states children in high-crime zones like Gary could have traumatic stressors because of their environment.
“Particularly when you’re looking at a community like Gary, kids going and coming from school that somehow get involved or witness situations of violence shootings and that sort of thing,” Johnson Hughes says. “And so PTSD can be associated with those kind of things.”
Health officials say increasing spending for a community like Gary, Ind. with 37 percent of residents below poverty level can help provide resources to be preventative against violence.
“From a public health funding standpoint Gary, and Indiana ranks about 15 dollars, compared to the national average of $60 dollars per capita funding,” Caine says.
Bailey says after graduating from New the Innovative Institute, she plans to leave her hometown.
“It’s not a safe environment. Not only are we killing off our youth,” she says, “we’re killing off people that god had plans for the future.”