The white wall of a dilapidated garage behind a condemned house in the 1400 block of McKinnie Avenue tells quite a tale.
Scrawled in red spray paint up and down and across the old wood siding are the names of some of the city’s homicide victims – identified by first name or nickname – a grim tribute to what goes on too often in the city’s southern neighborhoods.
A few blocks away at Reed Street and East Pettit Avenue, the bark of a tree is cut away, revealing a puncture wound made by a bullet. On the ground nearby, the sidewalk pavement is lighter and streaked – where firefighters cleaned up the blood of 49-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier Hardy, shot to death at a bus stop Wednesday morning.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, crime scene tape from a shooting more than week ago remains wrapped around a tree in the 4500 block of Bowser Avenue.
City officials acknowledged Thursday what residents in the area and throughout the city have probably been feeling for the past few weeks – Fort Wayne seems to have become more violent.
But perception is not always reality, and while certain types of crimes may occur more frequently, area residents are not necessarily in greater danger.
“People by and large are not at any greater risk today than they were a week ago,” said Thomas Stucky, an associate professor of criminal justice at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “But that doesn’t make people feel better in the short run.”
Number of deaths
Statistically speaking, Allen County’s homicide total of 12 for the first quarter of the year isn’t much different than it’s been the past few years.
By the end of March 2010, the Allen County Coroner’s Office had already recorded nine homicides – all by gunshot. Allen County ended that year with 30 homicides, the majority of which were by firearms.
Last year, four people were killed in homicides in Allen County by the end of March, again all by gunfire, and the community ended the year again with 30 homicides.
For sheer horrific numbers, 1997 remains the area’s deadliest – with 42 people dying at the hands of others. They were of all ages and races, and spread throughout the county. Those victims were shot, stabbed, drugged and beaten, and one baby was shaken to death.
The next year, the number was nearly cut in half – 23.
“It just tends to even out that way,” Fort Wayne police Chief Rusty York said.
For law enforcement purposes, as opposed to the official count of the county coroner, homicides are recorded under the standard of the FBI’s Universal Crime Reports, which are criminal homicides and do not include police-action shootings or the deaths of people from injuries suffered years ago in a crime.
Three of Allen County’s dozen homicides so far this year do not fall under the FWPD’s count – two police-action shootings and the death this month of a 53-year-old man shot in the back in 1980. He died from complications brought on by his paraplegia caused by the gunshot, so the coroner recorded his death as a homicide. The police department did not.
York said it’s difficult to project how violent the city will become throughout the year based solely on the number of homicides recorded at the start.
“Neither citizens nor the police can say that, because we’ve had nine criminal homicides now, we’d have 40 by the end of the year,” York said.
“We seem to average out about 25,” he said. “Not that that’s acceptable.”
Stucky said residents’ perception of the dangers of homicide is largely driven by media coverage or knowledge of the “celebrated cases,” those infamous and horrific events that make the news and keep people talking.
“They stick in your mind,” Stucky said. “Much more than a theft, which is much more likely to happen to you.”
And it does not help that often such events, like the recent spate of shootings and homicides, tend to bunch together for totally unrelated reasons. It makes it that much more jarring, he said.
Not just homicides
Fort Wayne police are quick to point out that most of the city’s homicides, and shootings in general, are not random in nature.
They involve associations through other activities – such as gangs or drugs – or they are domestic in nature, such as Wednesday’s brazen slaying of Hardy.
But as the calendar turned from 2012 to 2013, the pages of The Journal Gazette and local news broadcasts were filled with reports of robberies, many of them violent, and many of them seemed random in that they targeted ordinary residents walking from their cars to their doorways, or trying to safely open the local bank branch.
Nationally, from 2011 to 2012, violent crime was up nearly 2 percent, bucking a years-long trend of decreasing, according to the FBI’s statistics.
While murders were down 1.7 percent, aggravated assaults and robberies were up more than 2 percent across the nation, according to the statistics.
Fort Wayne showed an increase in robberies from 2011 to 2012 of more than 50 percent, up from 108 in 2011 to 166 in 2012, according the FBI data.
•By the end of October, a local credit union was offering a $13,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of two men who forced their way into a branch as it opened, brandishing handguns. The next day, another Fort Wayne bank was robbed.
•On Nov. 5, a 16-year-old was shot with a small-caliber weapon and had his school-issued iPad stolen on the city’s southeast side.
•Two young men were held on federal charges after the violent robbery of a New Haven gun shop. One of the robbers beat up the owner and a customer. The pair was caught after a chase that ended when they crashed into a pickup truck.
•In early- to mid-January, area apartment dwellers were unsettled by more than a dozen armed robberies that occurred in complexes around the city. Some of the robberies ended with residents tied up inside their homes, including a toddler. One victim was stabbed and others were beaten.
Officer Raquel Foster, a Fort Wayne police spokeswoman, said many of the city’s robberies are often the work of two to four people who continue to hone their craft and perfect their method until they are caught.
And occasionally, a copycat criminal will operate in the same time frame as well, she said.
The bunching of such crimes, caused by the work of a single group of individuals, drive the perception that crime is getting worse, IUPUI’s Stucky said.
“A short-term sort of blip” is not indicative of a major long-term increase, he said.
Foster is quick to point out the role of technology in creating the perception that crime is more pervasive.
A shooting may occur, and within minutes, local news outlets have sent out a tweet, or someone a person knows has posted something on Facebook, she said.
“This is the age of information,” she said. “They have this perception that crime is all around me, even though they are not directly involved.”
Most people, statistically speaking, will never be a victim of a crime or involved in criminal activity, Foster said.
Stucky stresses that violent crime is still not the problem it was 20 years ago, but that fact is something the general public does not seem to notice.
“Perception is not a good indicator of the facts,” he said.