Rising crime worries city businesses

April 9, 2007

Indianapolis fought long and hard to earn a reputation as a safe place to live and conduct business. But police statistics show that local security is eroding. Crime has risen to the highest levels seen during Mayor Bart Peterson's administration.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department figures show there were 32,847 crimes last year within districts patrolled by the Indianapolis Police Department before it merged with the Marion County Sheriff's Department to form IMPD. That's 22 percent more than Indianapolis endured in 2000. It's a phenomenon engulfing three out of five city districts. Police stats show that crime on the east, south and west sides are at their eight-year peaks.

Shocking high-profile incidents, such as the late February daytime abduction and rape of a 27-year-old woman in a downtown parking garage, alarm everyone for a few weeks. But businesses are increasingly worried about the thousands of less-audacious crimes they've endured that could have escalated into something worse.

Take for example a March 8 burglary that occurred at the not-for-profit National Committee on Planned Giving, in the 200 block of McCrea Street. An IMPD incident report said the burglar broke into the front door of the building, entered the fourth-floor office, and stole an employee's wallet from her desk.

The NCPG's staff was eating lunch in the break room 30 feet away.

A similar incident against a tourist happened a little later at the nearby Omni-Severin Hotel. Police believe the same person was responsible for both crimes.

"We're still a little dazed about how brazen he was," said NCPG Public Relations and Marketing Manager Nicole Cunningham. "In broad daylight, in a busy, nice area, this can happen, even right under your nose."

Cunningham said her building's landlord has since installed new security cameras in the lobby and adjusted the elevators so they require keys. At the end of the workday, Cunningham said, she and her colleagues are now careful to walk to their cars in groups.

Security cameras didn't help Anthony Lineberry, co-owner of the Irvington salon, day spa, organic grocery and art gallery the Shops at Snips. On March 13, he said, a man walked into the salon while employees were busy elsewhere and took cash from the register. After reviewing the video, Lineberry realized the perpetrator was the same man who had walked into his salon a few days earlier asking for odd jobs. Lineberry said he has since seen the man walking around the neighborhood and reported it to the police, but hasn't yet heard about an arrest.

When he spoke to IBJ, Lineberry was particularly angry about crime in his area. He said he had just received an e-mail from a client describing how she'd been robbed at gunpoint in front of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church as she walked her son home from school.

Lineberry said it was the fourth e-mail about a local holdup he'd received in a week. He's meeting with other nearby business owners to discuss how to respond to the crime wave. They worry customers--afraid for their safety--will gravitate elsewhere.

"[The police] have a huge job to do. I understand that," he said. "But I have to make sure my doors stay open. And I understand that perception can kill a business."

Police statistics show that crime is at its worst on the east side. Last year, that district reported 9,991 incidents. That's 2,498 more crimes than it suffered back in 2000, when crime there was at its lowest point since Peterson was elected in 1999. And it's more than 66 percent more crime than residents of the north side suffer. Crimes on the south and west sides are also up sharply from their low points six years ago.

It's not just property crimes. In 2006, Indianapolis also saw more violent crimes such as homicide, rape and robbery than it did in the earlier part of this decade.

To be certain, Indianapolis hasn't yet reached the very worst levels of crime it ever reported. In 1996, the year with the highest totals on record, the city shouldered 37,917 crimes, or about 15 percent more than it experienced in 2006. Peak reports of every individual type of crime are scattered throughout the mid 1990s.

But overall, the city has clearly lost most of the enormous public safety gains it made in the early years of Peterson's administration. Local leaders point out that other big cities across the country have similar problems--or worse.

"We are no different, in my experience, from anybody else relative to crime rates. It's not a category you want to be a winner in, but we're not alone," said Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce President Roland Dorson. "There's no question crime can be a damper on economic activity. But I haven't experienced anybody saying 'We won't go [to Indianapolis] because that's a mini-Detroit.'"

Emphasizing crime is higher elsewhere in the United States doesn't satisfy activists such as Cathy Burton, president of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations.

"It may not be just an Indianapolis phenomenon. This may be occurring in metropolitan areas around the country," she said. "But I don't live in other metropolitan areas. I live in this one."

There are many ways large and small that the city is fighting back. Peterson said he's shifted the city's financial resources to combat crime; installed new streetlights and security cameras downtown; engineered the merger of the former Indianapolis Police Department and Marion County Sheriff's Department; and assembled local leaders to conceive solutions through his Community Crime Prevention Task Force, which issued its report in January.

"We're rising to the challenge," Peterson said. "It's our No. 1 focus right now, and every day of the week we are working on it."

Some businesses are also getting involved in the fight. For example, Syracuse N.Y.-based Bright House Networks recently introduced Bright Eyes here, a program it developed in Tampa, Fla. Under it, Bright House technicians are trained by the police about crime warning signs. In turn, they take an active role in reporting suspicious activity they see while they're on the job installing or repairing cable lines or high-speed Internet service in homes and businesses.

"We're in the neighborhoods. We drive thousands of miles a year with our trucks," said Bright House Networks Indiana Public Affairs Director Al Aldridge. "The more eyes you get out there, the more help you're giving to public safety."

"If I don't have homes with people in 'em, I don't have customers, so I'm all for making it as safe as possible," he added. "We just thought it was a great way to be a great neighbor."

Sheriff Frank Anderson, who leads the new consolidated IMPD, is currently studying whether his department needs more personnel. He's also introducing new anti-crime programs, such as a crime-stopper project in which IMPD provides $500 in exchange for every gun citizens turn in to be destroyed.

Anderson stresses that more businesses must also join the fight.

"One crime is too many," he said. "Until we start working together, we're going to continue to see these increases. It's our responsibility."

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