"A deadly summer

It’s hard to know where to begin when trying to make sense of this city’s spike in homicides. People killing people, especially when they’re young, makes no sense. But that hasn’t been enough to keep the soundtrack of this summer from being about murder. Lately it doesn’t seem like we can have a weekend around here without a body count.

What’s going on?

Marvin Gaye might still be asking that question, but then he was a victim of gun violence himself. Gunshot wounds account for 85 percent of this year’s victims.

Here are some of the things we think we know about our current situation:

So far this year, there have been over 90 homicides in Indianapolis. I use the word “over” because the way things are going, between the time I write this and you read it, that number is likely to change. And that change, of course, won’t be for the better.

The record for the number of homicides here in a given year, 162, was set in 1998. A lot of that violence was attributed to the crack cocaine scene. Drugs have been cited again as a possible impetus for this year’s killing spree. Some claim that turf wars are breaking out between out-of-town dealers (a Gary connection has been mentioned) and local gangsters. In any event, if people continue to murder one another at the present rate, we are on track to make 2006 the bloodiest year in the city’s history.

Mayor Bart Peterson has proposed increasing the city’s public safety budget by $54 million, to $532 million. This may be just the beginning. Indianapolis has been underfunding public safety compared to peer cities for years. In 2005, our police spending per capita was $152. In Detroit, it was $551; Baltimore spent $443; Columbus, Ohio, spent $295; Memphis $265. The peer city average was $296. Our number of sworn officers per 1,000 residents was 2.02 in fiscal 2003. That put us in the lower half of peer cities. Baltimore led with 5.93 officers per 1,000 residents; Memphis had 2.99 and Columbus 2.45.

In announcing his budget increase for public safety, the mayor assured us that this would not require a tax increase — other public services, like parks, would be forced to make cuts. That, unfortunately, will make a bad situation worse for the people who rely on public services the most. As I wrote in this column a few weeks back, research shows that, in spite of our highly touted affordable cost of living, the poor have a tougher time in Indianapolis than in almost any other city of comparable size in the country.

For example, we learned last week that Indianapolis has the highest foreclosure rate of any city in the United States. According to RealtyTrac, there were 6,878 foreclosures here in the second quarter, or one for every 101 households. Our second quarter foreclosure rate was more than three times the national average; no other Midwestern city ranked in the top 10.

And while we’re at it, here’s another bit of data to add to the mix: According to a new rating system approved last week by the state Board of Education, most of the state’s middle and high schools are rated as being on “Academic Watch,” which is one step above the lowest ranking.

There’s a racial component to all this. More than half the people killed so far this year have been black males. This in spite of the fact black males account for just 12 percent of the total population.

Politicians and clergy, law enforcement officers and educators have waded into this swamp with messages emphasizing positive thinking, prayer and responsibility. In sum, their efforts have been reminiscent of Nancy Reagan’s command to “Just say no!” As far as these sincere and genuinely stricken officials are concerned, the advantages of going straight are obvious.

But by now it should be just as obvious that for a small but significant portion of our population, those advantages aren’t clear at all. For whatever reason — bad parenting, a seemingly rigged economy, a clueless school system, name it — these people consider themselves out of the loop the rest of us call society. Where many of us see violence as the ultimate failure of imagination to construct a better reality, the killers see it as the only way they know to impress their identity on a world that, otherwise, can’t be bothered.

This isn’t a plea for understanding. Turn on the TV, listen to popular music, play a video game or, for that matter, listen to the justifications offered by world leaders for their actions. We all know where the killers are coming from. Do we need more cops on the streets? More prosecutors and more jails? Sure we do, and we’ll have to pay for them, too. But all of that comes after the killing is done.

“We have to change the culture.” Sheriff Frank Anderson said that. My guess is that if anybody knows how big a job that will be, he does. He’s probably wondering if the rest of us have it in us to even try.