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Indianapolis Meeting Kicks Off Violent Crime Reduction Program

August 15, 2012 | Indianapolis Star |  Link to article

Larry Smith knows a little about violent crime — it has visited his sons like a sledge hammer, and they in turn have hoisted that hammer.

So Smith, 63, is solidly behind a program called Ceasefire, which is endorsed by a coalition of about 20 local churches, City-County Council members and others, and which drew more than 200 people to a community meeting Tuesday at St. Gabriel Catholic Church, 6000 W. 34th St.

Many in the crowd were motivated by their own brushes, or near-misses, with crime, but few could offer the kind of collisions Smith has witnessed:

>> His oldest son, Larry Jr., was killed in 1997 in a shooting that left his kid brother, Courtney, wounded. Larry Jr. was 23 when he died; Courtney was 18 at the time.

>> Middle son Jermaine Smith, then 30, was shot and critically wounded in 2007 in what police described at the time as a retaliation shooting. He survived.

>> On June 25, Courtney Smith told police he came home and found a man who had broken in; gunfire was exchanged; Courtney was shot four times and survived; the other male, who was 16, died.

An arrest warrant subsequently was issued for Courtney Smith, who fled and remains at large. The father said if he knew where his son is, he’d make him turn himself in.

But all of that kind of violence, Smith said, simply has to stop.

The solution he sees is Ceasefire, a violent crime reduction concept employed in Boston and other cities that involves intensive collaboration between law enforcement, social service agencies and churches and other community groups.

In Indianapolis, it is promoted by IndyCAN — the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network. Ceasefire involves summoning known criminals and their associates in for blunt talk. They are told they are living their lives wrong, that they are hurting their own communities and that they need to stop it.

But it’s not just a “just don’t do it” message. The carrot is help from community and social services agencies that steer them toward education and training, job placement and other kinds of support they need to succeed in jobs.

Then there’s the stick: If they don’t take the carrot and continue lives of wrongness, they — and their friends and associates — will be targeted by law enforcement, quickly and decisively.

It might sound simple, but advocates say it works — pointing to a potential 34 percent drop in homicides.

A similar model was used in the late 1990s in Indianapolis, and it is unclear why that initiative didn’t continue.

Indianapolis Acting Police Chief Rick Hite — who said he became familiar with the concept in Baltimore — said what sometimes happens is that the coalitions necessary for the approach aren’t woven tightly enough to keep the momentum going.

In Indianapolis now, Hite said, the police department is ready for Step 1 of Ceasefire — identify the known and likely criminals and pull them in for those “call-in” meetings.

Hite said what the city needs is more community partners to make the next step work — coordinated, effective and consistent delivery of support services to make it worth the while of former and potential criminals to change their ways.

It has to work the way epidemiologists fight contagious illnesses, the chief said. First, a few people have to be inoculated, then more and more until the cure spreads faster than the threat.

“You have to inoculate the community to see that violence is a disease,” Hite said.

Ceasefire also has a faith-based foundation, drawing on the Old and New Testaments to include Jewish congregations and Christian churches of various denominations.

“Fear of violence is paralyzing and polarizing for a community,” the Rev. Larry Crawford of St. Gabriel told those at the meeting.

Parish member Kerry Balding told the crowd she is living with that kind of fear and resents it. Her husband, she said, is a Wayne Township firefighter who has been in the line of gunfire three times, including at his fire station.

Her daughter was to start Girl Scout camp this summer on the Far Westside three days after a gun battle at a nearby park left several people wounded and a young woman dead, Balding said.

“If there’s a way that we can stop this, that has to happen,” she said. “This is an outrage to me, that I don’t feel safe in my own community.”

Ceasefire supporters are asking for city funding to hire a coordinator for the project, fund a contract with a national organization that could offer guidance and for the salaries of several caseworkers to ensure participants receive and stick with services. In all, funding would be about $500,000 a year.

In light of the pared-down budget offered this week by Mayor Greg Ballard, including no raises for police and firefighters and no funding for a recruit class of police officers, the initiative seems to face an uphill battle.

But City-County Council President Maggie Lewis also is on board and was among Tuesday’s scheduled speakers. Ceasefire supporters said they have a federal grant application pending and have their eye on part of $2 million in Ballard’s budget earmarked for crime prevention.

Smith, said it’s going to take an all-out effort in the entire community.

But the 14-year veteran of the Indiana Department of Transportation, who retired after another 23 years as a maintenance man for the Indianapolis Housing Authority, said one key is to convince bad actors there really is a better way to live open to them.

“Over the years, I’ve found that most of the criminals out here have got families,” he said, and they want to provide for those families. Many just don’t see a way to get back to clean living, he said.

“I think that everybody deserves at least one second chance,” he said. “You can change if you want to change.

“And if they don’t want to, then they go back to jail.”