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Last updated: Thu. Aug. 16, 2012 - 11:00 am EDT

COLUMN

One word explains spike in murder rate: Gangs

But this time, community is helping police, chief says

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The 'Fort Report'

This week's show will feature Police Chief Rusty York and the Rev. Stephen Terry, who will discuss violence and gang activity and what can be done to stop it. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

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The headline in Tuesday's News-Sentinel matter-of-factly reported how Allen County's two latest murders had pushed this year's total to 23 – just one less than in all of 2011, with more than four months to go.

What it didn't explain is: Why?

“Gangs,” said Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York. “Homicides and shooting are up, and the majority of it is gang-related, especially African-American gangs. (Murder) victims are most often involved in gangs or drugs and carrying illegal firearms and have had a disagreement with someone of the same lifestyle.”

To the discerning eye, York's admission will not come as a surprise. It is relatively common for newspapers to print the police mug shot of a murder victim – something the cynical might embrace as gene-pool Darwinism if not for the fact that innocent bystanders too often get caught in the crossfire, creating a cancer of fear that can destroy entire neighborhoods.

Through July – the last full month for which official “uniform crime statistics” are available – 14 homicides had been committed in Fort Wayne compared to 12 the previous year, an increase of nearly 16.7 percent. There had also been 245 assaults, most of them involving guns – an increase of more than 15.5 percent. Other crimes were also more common, for an overall increase of 9.6 percent – and violent crime up nearly 26 percent.

The cause of this spike is unclear, but there are at least two bits of good news in what is an undeniably alarming story:

Local police are working closely with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to target gang activity – something that presumably could expose members to stiff federal anti-racketeering penalties.

And, perhaps even more important, York said residents of neighborhoods hard-hit by violent crime are showing a new willingness to fight back by cooperating with police whose absence has been criticized as indifference and presence has been viewed with suspicion or outright hostility. Remember the “Metro Squad”? That was the joint city-county police force created to target high-crime areas way back in 1995. Branded as racist by some civil-rights leaders and central-city residents, an ultimately unrealized proposal to reorganize the unit five years ago was likened to Hitler's Gestapo by one prominent activist.

But that kind of confrontation is slowly being replaced with cooperation, York said – a logical if overdue response to the fact that at least three people have been shot – one fatally – as the result of suspected gang activity this year. Two of them were children.

“People are getting involved because they've had enough,” said York, who said he is also working with religious leaders to promote nonviolence – something that has been tried before, without apparent success.

When York talks about gangs, he's not necessarily referring to well-organized enterprises with out-of-town ties. They may have few real leaders and are composed of a fluid, rag-tag bunch of mostly disgruntled teens and 20-somethings who dabble in drugs, petty crime and general mayhem.

“We know who these people are and where they are. We're building cases and it takes time, but what's new is that we are focusing on the people who can make a big difference. We are saying to gangs, 'You can't get away with this, there will be consequences,' ” York said before adding: “We can't arrest our way out of this.”

Maybe not, but one thing is certain: When the bad guys are in jail, they aren't out shooting young girls playing in the yard.

Even so, society's options are limited and imperfect when people refuse to behave. I can't say for certain, but I suspect most gang members come from homes lacking a loving, involved, law-abiding husband and father – a void that will cause some children to seek alternative and often-destructive “families.”

It is good to hear that people are becoming so fed up with crime that they are willing to cooperate with police. But it would be even more encouraging if they, with the help of churches and other organizations, would commit themselves to providing a constructive alternative to gangs, starting in the home.

Because York is right: He can't arrest them all.

But here's hoping he and the feds bag at least a few.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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