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Crime scene tape marking off a shooting scene has been common in the city this year. Comparisons to 1997, the most violent in Fort Wayne’s modern history, yield interesting similarities – and differences.

Then – and again

Look back at city’s most violent year – 1997 – proves instructive

The May 4, 1997, Journal Gazette examined the reasons behind what was already a bloody year.

“Spate of killings tied to drugs, gangs, guns,” read the headline on the front page of Tuesday’s Journal Gazette. As I look back to 1997, I am reminded of the cliché: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In last week’s story, reporter Rebecca S. Green examined the roots of the violence that continues at a record pace in Fort Wayne and Allen County in 2013. She cited that benchmark year of 1997, when 43 people were killed. As of Wednesday, 38 people have been slain this year.

While there’s no way to predict a homicide, that unenviable record is in peril with a little more than two months left in the year.

Also on Tuesday, columnist Frank Gray lamented that “… what is so stunning about so many of the killings that have happened this year: so many seem almost casual.” The evidence seems to bear him out.

(Let us stipulate here that no life has any more or less value than any other. What follows is simply an examination of the circumstances of two discrete yet similar periods of time).

One of the remarkable things about 1997 was that it followed a period of steadily declining homicide rates (which mirrored a nationwide trend). After a then-record 39 killings in 1994, Fort Wayne/Allen County’s numbers dropped to 29 in 1995 then 15 in 1996.

In a mid-1997 special report on the spasm of violence (“A city’s agony: 17 killings in 17 weeks, five in five days … what’s going on here?”), the Rev. Ternae Jordan attributed the previous years’ decline to the fact that “the community put (stopping crime) as its first priority.”

“I think we focused on it, but then we got comfortable,” he said in explaining 1997’s resurgence. It’s a 16-year-old quote that has a familiar feel as we grapple with the causes of violence today.

So does the 1997 quote by Paul E. Paino, founder of Calvary Temple Worship Center, who said: “More and more, people have a lack of respect for life. If people don’t have some kind of an anchor, something that puts a value on life, then after a while life becomes a pretty cheap commodity.”

Betsy Moss, a clinical social worker specializing in treating children and adolescents, said then that “more and more people are full of anger and don’t know where to take it.” This is quite likely more true today than when it was first spoken.

Finally, Mayor Paul Helmke cautioned that more than simply an increased police presence was needed to reduce crime.

“Too much of the time we expect a simple solution and expect the police to handle it, and the police can’t handle it alone,” Helmke said. “It takes all of us.”

Compare those words to those of Urban League President Jonathan Ray at a recent “Community Forgiveness and Reconciliation Symposium,” “We need a new beginning, a new revival: We can no longer sit back and say it’s OK for … people to die.

“Central Fort Wayne, southeast Fort Wayne – it’s Fort Wayne. We’re all in this together.”

At the time of that special report on May 4, 1997, Fort Wayne and Allen County had yet to suffer the majority of the violence it would see by year’s end. Already dead were Donald R. “Charley” Knepple and Steven Tielker, who were slain at the Family & Children’s Services offices on South Calhoun Street by Gary W. Wright, a man who had been convicted of attempted child molestation and who subsequently killed himself.

Five-year-old Emmanuel Jones and his cousin Andre Stephans, 16, had died at the hands of Taurus Butler, who fired 21 rounds into the wrong house in a drive-by shooting.

But still to come were the quadruple slaying of a brother and three friends by Joseph Corcoran, the exchange of gunfire that killed Allen County Officer Eryk Heck and stakeout subject Timothy Stoffer, and a home invasion that left Richard and Sarah Dergins dead.

That’s 12 deaths among the year’s 43 (not counting Wright) that occurred in just five crimes. You could argue that makes the year, while still a record, something of an outlier.

In comparison, two of 2013’s slayings have been double homicides; one was a slaying/police-action shooting.

The year-end homicide wrapup story for 1997 found that 12 of Fort Wayne’s homicides were gang related and 10 were drug related (with the caution that some of those killings may have overlapped categories). That story certainly could also have been headlined “Spate of killings tied to drugs, gangs, guns.”

A Journal Gazette editorial at the end of 1997 exhorted those “committed to reducing the violence … to keep reminding the rest of us that we must not reach the point where we conclude that violence is inevitable and, therefore, acceptable.”

“… (T)his community has too many resources, too much talent, too much imagination – and too many inspired leaders … – to surrender to the culture of lethal violence,” it continued. “Rather, the tragic and disappointing record this year should be a call to action for a greater, communitywide commitment to turn back the rising tide of violence.

“We simply must do better.”

But – in the 16 years since then – have we?

Keith Elchert is the copy editor for The Journal Gazette’s editorial page.

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