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Residents say safety is a growing concern: Survey: Fewer feel comfortable downtown after dark

December 11, 2006

Most central Indiana residents feel safe in downtown Indianapolis when the sun is out, but remain leery of the city at night, according to a study by the IUPUI Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management.

The annual study, which is designed to gauge the impact of cultural tourism on quality of life, gives the city high marks overall in areas ranging from cultural attractions to cleanliness, public transportation to parking. But it also shows the city has more work to do in helping residents feel safe downtown after dark.

Conducted in October, the in-person survey of 955 residents found 80 percent of people feel safe or very safe downtown in the daytime, while only 40 percent feel safe at night. The nighttime result represents a 4-percentage-point drop from 2005.

The concerns about safety were not surprising to IUPUI professor Yao-Yi Fu, who coordinated the study. She said people are worried by an increase in crime citywide this year, including a potentially record-breaking string of murders. The survey found people in central Indiana feel less safe across the board-even in their own homes and neighborhoods.

"There have been a lot of discussions about safety issues downtown and some incidents that have happened," Fu said. "I think people are aware of those issues."

In August, Mayor Bart Peterson convened an emergency meeting of law enforcement officials after 15 people were murdered in 10 days in a crime wave that captured media attention across the country. And the murders have continued: By early December, the Indianapolis Police Department had investigated 100 homicides, ahead of its 2005 total of 88.

The city has stepped up patrols and installed new security cameras to help deter crime, and added jail beds to prevent early release of potentially dangerous criminals.

Meanwhile, tourism officials are reminding visitors to be aware of their surroundings and use common sense, taking an extra second to lock car doors. They also are reassuring convention planners that the city is safe.

"There were some very high-profile, highly publicized crimes in August throughout the city," said Tamara Zahn, president of Indianapolis Downtown Inc. "No doubt, those incidences affected people's perceptions. But the good news is, our crime stats downtown [for 2006] are relatively flat compared to 2005."

IDI conducted its own survey of safety perceptions this year and found 72 percent of residents feel safe downtown, while only 6 percent don't. The survey did not differentiate between daytime and nighttime.

"Downtown is still one of the safest areas of our city," Zahn said. "The biggest problem downtown is crimes against property."

The number of crimes reported downtown jumped 32 percent from 2002 to 2005, according to crime stats reported to the FBI by the Indianapolis Police Department. But more people are spending time downtown and the majority of downtown crimes, about 67 percent in 2005, involved thefts with no threat to an individual.

The 2,800 crimes reported downtown in 2005 are less than half the number reported in each of IPD's other zones, including north, south, east and west, although those areas are much larger.

Fears about crime can be driven by perceptions and media coverage as much as reality, as tourism officials in St. Louis learned this year.

In October, St. Louis was ranked by a private publishing company as the nation's most dangerous city. The story spread all over the country before city officials had a chance to point out dubious research that led to the distinction, said St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe.

She said tourism officials had to scramble to contact and reassure convention customers, while working to tell what they see as the accurate story: that St. Louis sits in the middle of the pack of comparable cities in terms of crime, and its downtown offers a safe environment for visitors.

"In any downtown area, there always needs to be vigilance in keeping people who may not be experienced in an urban environment safe and secure," Ratcliffe said.
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