If you don’t live on the southeast side, where most of the city’s 41 murders this year have occurred, you may not be familiar with the streets where the blood flowed, you will not know the shooters or their victims, and you may think the carnage does not touch your life. But it does.
No one knows that better than Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York.
This violence impacts us all, York told The Journal Gazette’s editorial board. Begin with the costs of medical care and the extra costs to law enforcement.
Indeed, he noted, the death toll might be significantly higher without quick responses by police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers. Homicides could easily be one third higher without good medical care.
Moreover, he said, how does it look for our city? Economic development, real estate values – all of them take a hit.
York doesn’t discount the need to improve the social environment. You get the kids that don’t have much hope, a lot of them buy into the gangster lifestyle.
But York isn’t shy about saying it: Doing something about guns would have the single biggest effect on violent crime.
Probably not in my tenure, not in my lifetime, York, 62, said, but we’re going to have to get a handle on this if we’re going to make a difference.
It’s a different thing than with any other weapon, he explained. Guns are what turn a street-corner drug deal into a lethal confrontation and cause an upsurge in robberies of individuals, as well, York said.
Guns also make the streets less safe for police officers. These days, the possibility that people they approach may pull out weapons makes it harder for police to build rapport with those who know what’s going on in the streets.
In turn, that affects what York and Garry Hamilton, deputy chief for the department’s southeast division, believe are the other keys to ending the mayhem: communication and trust.
Serious shootings don’t often happen in a vacuum. Somebody knows something. But in the culture of violence, it’s considered uncool and dangerous to talk to police. We have victims who don’t want to cooperate and plot their own revenge, Hamilton says. Others are simply afraid, which is particularly unfortunate because the supposed danger to witnesses is largely a myth, Hamilton and York say, unless the witness is him- or herself criminally involved.
Hamilton is working hard to break the cycle of distrust on the southeast side, citing efforts such as a coat giveaway for students at Whitney Young Elementary School last month and the Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries’ Adopt-a-Block program, which has already lowered crime in one neighborhood.
And there are specific policing strategies that target the murders. Linking into the National Integrated Ballistic Identification Network will help police here keep track of every shell case found at a shooting scene. Fort Wayne officers have gone to Chicago to learn about how that city has cut its murder rate, and they are working with federal authorities to build cases against what York calls the really bad guys – repeat offenders who may be charged with racketeering.
There are limits, though, to what a police department can do. Law-abiding witnesses have to step forward. Timid politicians are going to have to align themselves with the majority of Americans on at least modest gun measures such as extended background checks.
We need the police department’s help. And the department needs ours.