Fort Wayne Crime Summit seeks solutions

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FORT WAYNE — Almost anyone attending the Fort Wayne City Council’s Feb. 5 Crime Summit would come away very glad to know the Fort Wayne Police Department welcomed 24 recruits to its staff a day earlier.

While the crime data presented during the special meeting at Citizens Square depicted Fort Wayne as a very safe city, the statistics also indicated that keeping it that way is going to require some serious work.

The summit was prompted by a triple homicide that left two other victims wounded in November, causing concern among some residents about crime in the city. It was led by John Crawford, (R-at large), the council’s president.

Overall crime was down 15 percent in Fort Wayne last year compared with the previous year, but violent crime was up 7.87 percent, and that perception of increasing violent crime drives fear, Crawford said near the start of the meeting.

“Sometimes even people in neighborhoods that are not having crime, if they’re a couple of miles from an area that is, that impacts their quality of life and they begin to worry about their home values and other things because of that perception of crime,” he said.

“And it certainly discourages investment in areas of the city where the perception of crime is high. And we’ve had a problem getting investment in some areas of the city, and that is a big part of it.”

Crawford quoted Jospeter Mbuba, who teaches criminal justice courses for Purdue University Fort Wayne, as saying fear of crime is a big part of why violent crime is up.

When people fear crime, Mbuba believes they’re more likely to use higher amounts of force as a protective measure, “and we have the issue of retaliatory force and escalating violence,” Crawford said.

“One group increases force, then another group increases force in return, and we see with that cyclical nature sometimes we’ll have a spike in violent crime. And that type of violence is often seen in gang activity,” he said.

“I think we’ve given the police department just about everything they’ve asked for that we could afford, and I hear from the officers that we are definitely a very well-equipped department compared to other cities, and the training is top-notch.”

The challenges those resources are designed to counter include increases in drug trafficking and illegal firearm possession, according to data presented by Fort Wayne Police Department Chief Steve Reed.

FWPD arrests for illegal possession of a handgun were up more than 28 percent last year compared with 2017, Reed said.

“Our vice and narcotics division alone seized over 226 firearms, with nearly 700 seized by the department in 2018,” he said.

“We have more than doubled the total number of drug seizures from 2017 to 2018, with record or near-record seizures of heroin, meth and marijuana in 2018.”

FWPD adult arrests in 2018 were up more than 4 percent over the previous year; armed party calls were up 6 percent, and the city’s homicide count rose to 40 from 37 in 2017.

In addition to meeting these challenges with increased staff, the department has been looking into ways to make its officers more effective through the use of technology.

“I see the future of technology there for us,” Reed said. “We do have a current pilot project in the works with Fort Wayne parks for the new riverfront. The Fort Wayne Police Department will be purchasing the cameras out of our drug seizure fund to put up in the park as a measure of safety and to monitor any type of illegal activity.”

“And when we talk about cameras, that sort of technology, before we talk about going into neighborhoods we definitely need to enter a conversation with our neighborhood associations and other community groups to make sure they know what we’re intending on doing and that they’re comfortable with it,” he said.

“But I am a believer in technology, and I have spoken with the councilman (Crawford) about that. Mayor (Tom) Henry did authorize this, so I appreciate that.”

Depending on the outcome of the May 7 Republican primary, Crawford could be running against Henry for the top spot in the city’s government.

Henry issued a statement after the meeting that said public safety continues to be a top concern for him and “Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our residents, neighborhoods, and businesses.”

While acknowledging cameras have been used in some cities without much good effect, Crawford cited Englewood, Ill. — a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side — as an example of what camera technology can do to fight crime.

“Shootings were down by 52 percent compared with the previous year, and since the equipment was introduced in 2017 the neighborhood has led the city in the reduction of violent crime,” he said. “So, if you implement it well and you have the infrastructure to monitor it and preserve the data, it can be very positive.”

Other advances possibly worth considering for the department include facial recognition technology, license plate readers, gunshot spotting technology, which provides the location of a gunshot immediately, and voice-activated assistance, which can provide an officer with information very quickly, Crawford said.

Toward the end of the summit, a representative of the local Justice, Accountability and Victims Advocacy group was given two minutes to speak, and she made a pitch for additional detective resources in the city.

Reed said FWPD had six teams working six leads on homicide cases, and he was constantly in touch with the department’s deputy chief as well as its homicide sergeant to be able to respond to any needs the teams might have.