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Tim Harmon | The Journal Gazette
An overflow crowd listens to discussion about solutions to the murder epidemic in Fort Wayne at a special City Council meeting Tuesday night.

At a crisis point

The subject of the special City Council meeting was how to stop the wave of violence that so far this year has left 39 dead in Fort Wayne.

But the murder victim whose name evoked instant response from the overflow crowd was killed more than 13 years ago.

The presentation of the Fort Wayne Urban League’s Building Bridges to a Better Community struck Council President Tom Didier with special force. Near the end of the more-than-two-hour meeting, he made it personal.

“This really touches my heart, as someone who’s known the pain of losing someone to violence – my Uncle Jim.”

For 36 years, Jim Didier ran Didier Meats on East Pettit Avenue, a beloved neighborhood market where the butchers knew your preferred cuts of beef, and customers who couldn’t pay sometimes got credit.

In February 2000, he was shot to death by a 15-year-old robber. The store closed for good a few months later.

Many of those in attendance clearly remembered Jim Didier. When Councilman Didier, explaining the hole that murder left in his life, noted that his uncle was a good man, there were prayer-meeting-style nods of assent. “Yes, he was!” one woman said. “Yes, he was,” another echoed.

The council president’s comments were not only moving but on point.

As speaker after speaker stressed, the problem of violence in Fort Wayne is not one that can be walled off by geography, race or social standing.

There was Dr. Crystal Bush, a minister and school principal whose own son last month was sentenced to 45 years in prison for murder in a drive-by shooting.

There was Councilman Mitch Harper, who said he has known many of the city’s murder victims and their families over the years.

And there was Urban League Director Jonathan Ray, who presented the council with 10 recommendations for action that were gleaned from the Building Bridges community discussions these past few weeks.

“We’re at a crisis point,” Ray said. “There is a cost to doing nothing.”

Among the recommendations, four struck us as especially strong and achievable.

Committing to “a focused, intentional economic development project on the Central and Southeast side of Fort Wayne.”

Councilman Geoff Paddock agreed that step was essential.

“We have to focus with all the carrots and sticks that we have available to really target development on the south side,” he said. “Employment is the key to (preventing) crime and violence.”

Developing a community-policing strategy to improve trust and enable a better flow of information between police and the citizens they’re trying to protect.

Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York and Southeast Division Deputy Chief Garry A. Hamilton agreed that’s their priority.

“Improving transportation and mobility options available for urban populations.”

In 2013 America, transportation is essential to obtain most of life’s essentials – jobs, health care, food and clothing. People who are able to take advantage of job opportunities can break the spirals of hopelessness, absent fatherhood and need that sometimes lead to crime and violence.

“Commitment to cleaning and eradicating community eyesores and dilapidated structures.”

Is there anyone who still doesn’t believe environment influences behavior? Vacant houses and run-down neighborhoods are invitations to crime.

People pointed to other causes during the long, impassioned meeting. Lack of access to mental health care was one. The impact of the media and entertainment was another. And another, noted by Ray and eloquently etched by Councilman John Crawford, is the huge increase in single-mother households.

“It’s not just guns, it’s not just poverty, it’s not just a lack of social programs, it’s not just racism,” Crawford said. “It’s the breakdown of the family, it’s a socio-economic issue.”

Indeed, many of the problems that have led us to the sad moment when a few more murders could bring homicides in this city to an all-time high, cannot be solved or even addressed by government. But the Urban League and the community members who showed up in force for Tuesday’s meeting have pointed to some solid, tangible courses of action.

Council members seemed to be listening with their hearts. Now, for Jim Didier, for the murder victims of all the intervening years, and for those who might be next, they need to act.