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As leaders argue, local crime rises: Inner-city residents fear police consolidation, but city says it can't afford current structure

March 7, 2005

Despite Mayor Bart Peterson's addition of 200 cops in 2000-which gave IPD the strength to try community, or preventive, policing-crime jumped 11 percent over the last two years. Between them, the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department responded to 5,487 more offenses last year than in 2002.

Unless new money is found, Peterson has repeatedly warned, the cash-strapped city soon will be forced to fire IPD officers. Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson already struggles to fight suburban crime with a department he believes is understaffed by 250 deputies.

But Peterson's alternative proposal-consolidation-may not be the panacea he promises.

Property-crime rates in the suburbs are soaring. There are now nearly as many burglaries and thefts in MCSD's district as in IPD's.

If the boundaries between them were eliminated, the combined department might be able to put more feet on suburban streets. Residents could finally see a decline in property crime, which has become as much a fact of life there as downtown.

Yet inner-city residents fear the price of suburban security would be their own safety.

Inhabitants of IPD's district are already more than 5-1/2 times more likely than their suburban neighbors to be victims of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault.

A police merger means redis-See CRIME page 44 tributing cops, not hiring more. Inner-city residents worry that moving some of IPD's resources into the suburbs will spread the police too thin.

"I want kids to be able to play in the front yard and go to the store without getting robbed. I want to sit on my porch at night," said Waldine Anderson, executive director of the C.D.D. Crime Watch Group in IPD's North District. "We're just now getting a toehold fighting crime. A whole lot of details have to be worked out before people will buy into this [proposed merger]. The whole situation makes me nervous."

Fighting crime in the suburbs isn't the same as crime fighting downtown. Statistically, IPD still has a far more dangerous mission.

IBJ analysis shows residents in the inner city are almost three times likelier to be raped than their suburban counterparts, more than three times likelier to be robbed, 5-1/2 times likelier to be murdered, and almost 14 times likelier to be victims of aggravated assaults.

It used to be even worse.

Since the year before Peterson, a Democrat, took office, the rate of violent crimes in IPD's district has decreased 17 percent. With its force of 1,232, IPD serves a population of 342,718. All of its 86-square-mile geographic district falls inside the old city limits.

In 1999, Indianapolis recorded 6,898 murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults. By last year, IPD had cut that figure to 5,752. Most law enforcement officials credit the reduction to 200 new cops Peterson hired to make good on his 1999 campaign pledge. The additional manpower, officials said, gave IPD the strength for aggressive efforts at community, or preventive, policing.

In the two years since the election of Anderson, also a Democrat, MCSD also made gains against some kinds of violent crime, particularly murder, rape and robbery. Those crimes dropped 14 percent, from 1,152 offenses in 2002 to 986 last year.

MCSD serves the portion of Marion County surrounding IPD's district. In the suburbs, 411 sheriff's merit deputies patrol a 287-square-mile area with a population of 456,616. Another 121 unpaid reserve deputies augment the sheriff's crime-fighting strength.

Anderson moved 47 desk-bound deputies onto patrol before he made his request for 250 more deputies.

"You clean your own house before you go begging," he said.

But IPD's and MCSD's gains against the most heinous crimes were offset by a rise in lesser offenses.

Property crimes-such as burglary, larceny and auto theft-have increased across the county. In just two years, those types of offenses rose 14 percent in IPD's district, to 23,935. MCSD's l e s s e r f e l o n i e s increased 16 percent, to 23,063-now nearly matching IPD's level.

Both IPD and MCSD are working against a surging tide of accused criminals released early from the overcrowded Marion County jail. Without enough space to hold them, lesser offenders are frequently turned onto the streets.

Last year 1,500 inmates were prematurely released. Of them, 238 committed additional crimes and 465 didn't bother to appear in court for their trials.

"We concentrate so much, and rightfully so, on people released and committing violent crimes," said Jerry McCory, the mayor's special advisor for public safety. "But we shouldn't lose sight that many of these people are getting out and committing nonviolent crimes."

While the total level of violent crime certainly decreased in both districts, there are unsettling exceptions.

IPD reported a sudden upsurge in reports of rape last year. Over Peterson's first four years, reported rapes were off almost 10 percent, from 281 incidents in 1999 to 254 in 2003. But last year, the number of rapes IPD investigated increased 27 percent, to 323, in only one year.

And in Anderson's first two years, the suburbs saw aggravated assaults jump 147 percent, to 328.

Personnel shortages mean cops already must make hard choices every day about where to direct their efforts. If financial shortfalls force Peterson to reduce IPD's head count, those decisions will become even more difficult.

From his first days in office, the sheriff has complained he's making do with 250 fewer deputies than he needs.

"I'm a strong advocate of community policing. I support it wholeheartedly. We don't have the luxury to do that," Anderson said. "If we didn't have the reserves, I don't know how I'd operate."

As a concession to Marion County's fiscal reality, he eventually scaled his repeated requests for 250 down to 25. Last year, the City-County Council promised him 16.

"To this day, I've never gotten one," he said.

A police merger could provide some of the cops Anderson wants. Peterson says it can be done without diluting the force downtown. But inner-city residents are skeptical. So is the police union that represents both departments.

Sgt. Vince Huber, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 86, said the merger can't compensate for public safety's systematic lack of necessary resources.

FOP's members voted 1,023-22 against the police merger as outlined in Peterson's "Indianapolis Works" government consolidation plan.

"We fully support Sheriff Anderson's concept that he needs more deputies. But the Indianapolis Works plan basically said, 'If this plan passes, we don't need to hire 250 more deputies,'" Huber said.

But local government can't even afford the cops it has anymore. The days of the status quo are numbered. For years, elected officials have struggled to finance Marion County's present law enforcement structure. Without either new money or improved efficiency, it can't be maintained.

That likely means fewer police on the street.

Peterson promises his proposed police merger would bring $8.8 million in annual savings. It's a key component of his larger Indianapolis Works package, which he pledges will save $35 million each year.

Currently assigned a path toward summer study committee, the plan has a shaky future in the Statehouse. That could still change before the Legislature's session concludes next month. The Peterson administration is counting on it, because Indianapolis Works' expected $35 million in savings is already built into the city's next budget.

Indianapolis City Controller Bob Clifford is quietly exploring the alternatives. Although he's far from ready for specific recommendations, Clifford said he's begun cataloging potential budget cuts. He needs to be ready if the mayor's plan to update Unigov should fail.

"Our 2005 budget was predicated on Indianapolis Works' taking effect in 2006," Clifford said. "I think the budget cuts [would] probably begin immediately after Indianapolis Works dies."

The City-County Council has approved the first hike in Marion County's county option income tax since 1989. It's expected to fill local coffers with an extra $13.5 million in the first year. When the COIT hike is complete, it could add $40 million annually.

Its proceeds are earmarked for public safety, but they won't pay for more police. Any gains have already been tagged for relieving jail overcrowding and adding prosecutors, public defenders and judges to the understaffed local court system, Clifford said.

So Indianapolis and Marion County are stuck making the most of the cops they've got.

Peterson argues that means one police department is better than two. Scott Chinn, special counsel to the mayor, said the current artificial boundary between IPD and MCSD is inefficient. A merger would allow a combined department to deploy cops wherever they're needed. What's more, he said, it would allow some deskbound personnel to return to patrols.

Chinn couldn't quantify the merger's net gain in street police. But he insisted a police merger won't dilute IPD's district.

"Some people have been confused that we're just going to pick up guys in blue uniforms and put them outside old city limits. We clearly don't want to do that," he said.

Yet no matter how many cops the city has or how they're deployed, there's not enough room to hold the criminals they catch. Marion County has a court-ordered jail population cap of 1,135. For now, local officials' priority is to decrease the rate of early release, which they blame for crime increases in both IPD and MCSD jurisdictions.

"You [currently] have a revolving door of criminal justice here in Marion County, where you tell the criminal nothing is going to happen to you," Huber said. "If you do wrong, it's a slap on the wrist and you'll do it again."

Anderson doesn't want more cells. He wants to change the system. It's bottlenecked, he said, because Marion County's underfunded courts can't keep pace with arrests.

Jail should be a temporary place, Anderson said. Speedy trials would hasten the innocent home and send the guilty promptly to prison.

"You can't build your way out of this problem," he said.

Anderson has remained neutral about Indianapolis Works, even though it could provide him more personnel. Observers expected him to take an active role promoting it for Peterson. But Anderson has only publicly said he'd abide by the will of the people.

Anderson recently told IBJ that's his stance because he's had to focus entirely on the challenge of the daily operations of the department and the jail. What's more, he said, he doesn't want rumors of a stillhypothetical merger running through his ranks and distracting their attention.

But the sheriff's backing could greatly increase the chances of a police merger's success. His reluctance might have something to do with the chain of command Peterson proposed for a combined police department. Under it, the sheriff would report to a three-member metropolitan police commission. Two of its members would be appointed by the mayor; the third would be appointed by the City-County Council.

"A sheriff is elected by the people. People have the opportunity to see the candidates themselves," he said. "I don't take orders from any other official."

Before Senate Bill 511 died, Anderson opposed it. The bill would have turned law enforcement in Marion County over to an appointed police chief. It's not much of a stretch to see how the same logic applies to Peterson's proposed police commission.

Despite Peterson's dire warnings of cutbacks, City-County Council Minority Leader Phil Borst questioned whether he would ever actually fire cops. The local public safety system is certainly troubled, he acknowledged. But Borst suggested Peterson fell back on hyperbole to sell Indianapolis Works.

"That's something all mayors use as a PR tool," he said. "There needs to be more efficiency, no two ways about it. The mayor has it right. But there are other ways of doing it. It doesn't have to be his way."

As Huber sees it, local officials had better find common ground if they want to maintain the city's progress in the face of rising crime.

"We're not Mayberry anymore. ... When you're a big city, you have big problems, and one of those problems is public safety," he said. "It's pay now or pay later. People won't come and live in your city or put a business there if they don't feel safe."
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