Last week, my wife attended a conference at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. I tagged along for a change of scenery, some quiet workspace, and a chance to visit friends in my old Nutmeg State stomping ground.
At the opening-night dinner, the organizers welcomed participants, outlined coursework and introduced leaders.
Then they did something I’m not accustomed to at home in Indiana or in my travels around the country: Instead of the usual chamber-of-commerce “enjoy our city” routine, they issued a safety warning.
They said Yale’s campus is safe enough, but we needed to be cautious—especially at night—in surrounding areas of New Haven, including the adjacent-to-campus downtown where our hotel was located.
They urged participants to take the shuttle bus to daytime conference sessions at the nearby Yale School of Management or, if they chose to walk, to do so in groups.
The next night, Cheri and I were headed out around 6 p.m. for dinner at a highly recommended pizzeria. Because it was only six blocks away, we thought we’d walk.
In the hotel lobby, however, a conference organizer and Yale alumnus hailed our dining choice but urged us to drive, because we’d likely be returning around sunset.
“It’s better to be careful,” he said.
So we drove.
New Haven should have everything going for it. It’s home to one of the most respected universities in the world. Town meets gown in a downtown with parks, historic neighborhoods, magnificent churches and a nice mix of residential, retail and office space. Highway access to New York, Boston, Cape Cod and points between is excellent.
And yet, in 2010, FBI data showed New Haven to be the fourth most dangerous city in the United States (behind, Flint, Mich.; Detroit, Mich.; and St. Louis, Mo.), based on the ratio of violent crime to population.
There was no promotional material about the city of New Haven in our hotel or in the conference packet—not a single brochure, magazine, restaurant list, shopping guide, historic walking tour map, nothing.
All we learned about New Haven is that it’s not safe.
That’s quite the contrast from Indianapolis, where we welcome visitors with open arms, urge them to walk everywhere, promote our 24/7 downtown, and pile on publications, videos, websites, apps and publicity filled with things to see and do.
But with a 2013 shoot-’em-up trend worthy of the O.K. Corral, we need to ask ourselves: Is Indianapolis at risk of suffering New Haven’s plight, and what are we doing to prevent such a blow to our reality and reputation?
Back in 2006, faced with an escalation in violent crime, Mayor Bart Peterson appointed a 45-member crime prevention task force to analyze the problem and determine how to help. I was honored to be one of them, sitting next to then-U.S. Attorney/now congresswoman Susan Brooks at meetings and co-chairing a best-practices subcommittee with then-Butler University President Bobby Fong.
Mayor Peterson asked us to look not just at how to enhance public safety’s ability to address present-day crime, but also how to address recidivism, education, economics, housing, drugs, poverty and other factors that contribute to crime.
He asked us to look not only at what had been done well locally that could be expanded or enhanced, but also at what had worked well in other places that could be introduced in Indianapolis.
When our task force returned with an ambitious set of recommendations—for new police officers; adequately funded public-safety pensions; strategic investments in our courts, judges and prosecutors; community-based grants for crime prevention programs and more—the mayor and city-county councilors contributed to their own political suicides (for many of them, anyway) by passing a local-option income tax to help fund these public-safety measures.
This week, sitting on a Yale island in a crime-ridden sea, I got to wondering what happened to the $90 million that was going to be focused on crime prevention. I asked think tanks, advocacy groups and academics. I searched the Web. I looked for outcome measures—the kinds of things you’d want to announce or report to citizens who’d been asked to cough up cash to ensure a safer city.
But other than a community crime prevention grant program that’s been booted from city government to the Indy Parks Foundation to the Central Indiana Community Foundation; a program that’s dwindled from the intended $4.5 million per year to just $1.7 million; a program that’s employed “peanut-butter philanthropy,” spreading too many small grants to too many recipients to make a measurable impact, there’s not much information to be found.
Just another task force report. Sitting on another shelf. Bullets flying ’round.
Now, as the murder rate in Indianapolis escalates, instead of using the tens of millions of local option income tax dollars allegedly allocated to crime prevention, city government is starting the Indy Public Safety Foundation to raise private donations for crime prevention.
I hope it’s not shelved. I hope it’s not shelled out piecemeal. And I hope it buys us more than what New Haven has.•
Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at email@example.com.