The shooting that wounded five teenagers Saturday night near the canal once again destroyed the illusion that downtown Indianapolis is a peaceful and safe place with no significant crime problem.
Local politicians, law enforcement and convention and tourism leaders have conspired for years to spin the myth that our downtown is a safe and family-friendly environment where visitors need never fear being mugged, assaulted or murdered.
The massive federal and local police presence during the Super Bowl at times verged on being a military occupation, which is apparently what it takes to maintain law and order in our city's center. The football fans and visitors literally dodged a bullet in that there were no major crime sprees in the week leading up to the game.
Every so often, such as last weekend, there's something to remind us just how big the crime problem is downtown and how decades of efforts to reverse it have mostly failed.
It's easy to blame the city police for allowing this to happen and, in fact, they are not completely blameless in stamping out this problem. There's more than enough blame to go around. The mayor owns a piece of this too, although he shouldn't get all of the blame either.
As anyone who spends any significant time downtown on a daily basis can tell you, Indianapolis is not the shiny, clean, safe place our city's boosters portray it to be. It has the same problems that plague all of our major cities: violence, homelessness and far too many teenagers walking around bored out of their minds and looking for trouble in any form they can find.
The difference between us and other cities is that we try to downplay those negatives for business purposes. Corporations and non-profit organizations don't want to bring their conventions to downtown Indianapolis if they fear their members being robbed or worse while they're here.
The biggest problem with keeping the peace downtown, as I see it, is parents of teenagers treating the city center as a place where they can drop off their kids every Friday and Saturday night. All it takes is a few drunken words being exchanged and then bullets start flying. Only occasionally is it a significant enough event to merit media coverage.
It's not as if this is any big revelation to anyone with knowledge of the situation, but more attention needs to be paid to this.
As Metro Police Chief Paul Ciesielski told the AP, "Parents just need to be more responsible and not use the downtown as a baby sitter. "Two of the victims were 14 years old. Why were they there at 10 p.m. without parental supervision? Who are they hanging with while downtown?"
The chief and his men and women in uniform are doing their best but resources are scarce, the department is understaffed and it's impossible to be everywhere at once. Security has been beefed up downtown since the shootings in 2010 during Indiana Black Expo and it's still not enough.
Spend an hour or two any day at the bus stops at Ohio and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Meridian and you'll see just how bad the problem truly is. Drug deals, small-time assaults and plenty of verbal sexual harassment go on non-stop in front of the Birch E. Bayh Federal Courthouse and the cops are too busy elsewhere to care, barring a major incident.
Maybe the police could do more. But ultimately the problem is going to have to be solved, as Ciesielski says, at the family and societal level. Community leaders in Indianapolis have been talking about this for years and years but we only pay attention after a major violent incident.
Even commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, with whom I seldom agree, gets it. In an article on IndyPolitics.org, he speaks quite well for many of us.
"The people who hand out the crime prevention grant money really need to do a second look at what organizations they are giving funds to, because if last night was any indication, it's not working."
His article carries a provocative headline: "Negroes, Please!" That's part of the Shabazz shtick, being all controversial and whatnot, but his admonitions — on this occasion at least — make sense. And he's about the only media figure in the city who could get away with writing the following paragraph:
"It's time to be the bad guy, again, and say what needs to be said because a lot of people won't man up and say it. 'Black people, please start getting some of your unruly children under control or do the rest of us with home training a favor and stop having them.'"
Of course this parenting rule is not race specific.
The point is that leaders have spent years trying to sweep our violence problem under the rug instead directly addressing it and that our city suffers from too many gangs, drugs and teenagers with nothing to do.
That's been the recipe for urban riots for half a century in America now. It's way past the time for our leadership to start taking drastic measures before the problem grows even more out of control.
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