by Thomas P. Healy
In one of his first official acts, Mayor Joe Hogsett tapped former public safety director Troy Riggs to serve as chief of police and deploy a data-driven cure to what the mayor termed “a violent crime epidemic.”
On his second day in office, the Mayor convened a Public Safety Summit to craft both short-term and long-term strategies for addressing crime. At subsequent public safety gatherings in January he acknowledged the considerable challenges ahead. “Change will take time, but I think we have in place the team, the know-how, and the commitment to make a significant difference to make our neighborhoods safe and our streets peaceful,” he said.
The Mayor’s remarks were delivered during the first monthly data meeting at the Regional Operations Center (ROC) on the city’s east side. The ROC serves as a real-time crime center that monitors national crime trends and correlates them to local activities.
The occasion also marked the release of “Crime in Indianapolis: Trends, Sources, and Opportunities for Change,” a report by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute (PPI) that Chief Riggs co-authored with Breanca Merritt during his tenure there in late 2015.
After the Mayor’s opening remarks, Chief Riggs recited some grim statistics about the 144 murder victims last year: 115 had criminal histories; 37% had weapons arrests; 60% had previous crimes against persons arrests. To avoid “blaming the victim,” he framed the data as part of a crime-prevention effort. “Because somebody has a criminal history does not mean that they were involved in criminal activity when they were murdered,” Riggs noted. “It’s just a way for us to try to decide how can we prevent these types of crimes from occurring in the future. We look at this to try to understand what we can do to do a better job at re-entry.”
The PPI study reports: “Past criminal behavior is strongly linked to violent crimes in Indianapolis. In 2015, 84% of homicide suspects in Indianapolis had a criminal history.” Among the report’s many recommendations is a call to reduce the number of recidivists: “Marion County would save $1.55 million by preventing just 46 ex-offenders from returning to prison within three years of being released.” The study cites IMPD estimates that nearly 9,000 ex-offenders will be released in the city this year.
Chief Riggs added, “Re-entry is not just handing them $50 when they leave jail and saying ‘see you in six months.’ We have to deal with the problems in daily life.” According to Riggs, these problems are systemic issues: chronic unemployment, low educational attainment, rampant substance abuse, food insecurity, and a dire need for mental health services.
During his tenure as public safety director, Riggs began a practice of gathering a range of data sets for the metro area to see what patterns emerged. Criminal activity statistics were analyzed for correlations with code enforcement violations, emergency runs, animal care and control incidents, and census data for age, employment, educational attainment, and income.
One result of the analysis was the identification in 2014 of six Public Safety Focus Areas throughout the city (including 34th and Illinois, in Midtown). These six areas contain 4.7% of the city’s population in approximately 8 square miles yet have an inordinate share of crime.
Riggs sees bringing increased attention to these areas as a proof-of-concept of his plan to not only contain crime but also to tackle deeper issues that lead individuals to choose criminal behavior. “If we don’t address it, it can spread,” he said. “The ironic part is that even though numbers in those areas are so high, only 15% of the people we arrest in the area live in that area. It’s people coming there to commit crimes.”
Riggs has proposed several measures in response. Beat patrols will be introduced in the Focus Areas, and the Chief hopes to expand that law enforcement method to other neighborhoods. While the logistics are still under discussion, he said that bike patrols could be a part of the strategy.
Additionally, Riggs said he’s urging the department to take a balanced approach that favors what he calls “quality arrests.” “We don’t want quantity,” he said after his formal remarks at the ROC. “We want to arrest the person who’s making it miserable for the individuals who live in that area.”
The department is also undertaking a sweep to pick up some of the 1,400 individuals who are on the streets with outstanding warrants. “These individuals have broken the law and they need to go to jail,” Riggs said. To augment IMPD’s force of 1,000 officers, Riggs has sought help from Marion County Sheriff John Layton to hold offenders responsible for their acts.
Riggs said his team will work with Deputy Mayor of Neighborhood Engagement David Hampton to find faith-based partners to support families of those caught up in the sweep. “This is a different way of thinking for the police department and we need the community’s support,” Riggs noted.
Part of this community support is an effort to establish resource centers in each Focus Area. IMPD Chief of Staff Brian Reeder continues to direct the Mayor’s Office of Re-Entry (MORE) program on an interim basis and is leading the effort. “We don’t have a resource center yet at 34th and Illinois but we’re looking to acquire these as quickly as we can,” he said.
Such centers provide “wrap-around” services to re-entrants who live within the service area. Reeder described this as ranging from getting a bus pass, to accessing mental health services, to treating substance abuse issues. Reeder said IMPD is open to working with nonprofits, community organizations, or churches to establish a resource center in Midtown. “If we can do that, then we could start attacking those systemic problems that lead to all of the criminal behavior that we see in the community,” he said.
Another effective community outreach tool has MORE literally taking it to the streets. Called the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, the effort involves teams going door to door in the six Focus Areas. Team members include City personnel from a variety of agencies: Public Safety, Public Works, Code Enforcement, Health Department, Animal Care and Control, and Emergency Medical Service. They are joined by nonprofit human service providers who knock on doors and talk with residents about quality-of-life issues. Not only do the team members get an opportunity to interact with citizens in a non-crisis situation and make a visible show of attention, but they also inventory abandoned houses and identify potential problems at the same time.
For example, a team took to the streets on a wet afternoon last November in the 3800 to 4100 blocks of Boulevard Place. A resident who had sent the team away thought better of it, called them back, and invited them in. Raw sewage was backing up in the basement. Team members declared a health emergency and notified the landlord that the problem had to be repaired in 24 hours to avoid a fine.
Such rapid response is not always possible, according to Department of Public Safety housing and services specialist Julie Fidler, who helps coordinate the teams, but she said the program has been an effective outreach tool. She said 1,400 neighbors were visited in 2015. After taking a winter break, Fidler said the teams would be back out in the neighborhoods in March.