Private Patrols Aim to Curb Crime in Gary

December 18, 2009

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Kwata Osborne is a rookie Gary police officer. (WBEZ/Michael Puente)
2009 is shaping up to be another tough year for crime in the city of Gary, Indiana, just 30 miles southeast of downtown Chicago. Gary's mayor and his new police chief are tackling the problem by hiring more cops and adding to Gary's reserve police force. But they aren't the only ones taking action. One upscale neighborhood is taking its own proactive measures to ensure safety. Those measures start today.

ambi: police radio sounds

It's almost time for rookie cop Kwata Osborne to begin his first shift on Gary's police force.

Osborne and three other rookies are joining about a dozen Gary patrolmen getting set to hit the streets for the night shift.

Ever since Osborne was a kid growing up in Gary, the 27-year-old says he's wanted to be a police officer.

He's been through 16 weeks of training, and two weeks of getting briefed on how things work inside the department.

OSBORNE: This is actually my first day on patrol. This is the day I've been waiting on. I call this my first day.

Osborne says he knows others view Gary as a tough, maybe even dangerous, city. The married father of four doesn't see it that way. He says he wants to do this…

OSBORNE: Just to give back to the community. I was born and raised here and I know the ins and outs of the city so I'm just looking forward to giving back to the community.

Osborne is one of 11 new officers who graduated last month from the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

Another 11 are set to graduate on New Year's Eve from a southern Indiana training academy.

All this is part of Gary's effort to boost its crime-fighting ranks and reduce the murder rate.

In October alone, the city suffered through a dozen killings, pushing its total to near last year's of 51, giving it again one of the highest homicide rates in the country for a city of fewer than 100,000 residents.

Despite this, Gary's Mayor Rudy Clay says his city is safe. He claims the city experienced a 43 percent drop in crime this year prior to the recent string of killings.

CLAY: Most of these homicides that have been highlighted, should I say 99 percent, are non-random. People that know each other get into an argument, one shoots the other. Non-random, those are hard to stop. And if you take the non-randoms out in October we don't have one homicide.

With the 22 rookies, Gary's police ranks will rise to 246 full-time officers. The force has another 57 part-time reserve officers, officers who volunteer their time but have full arresting powers and carry weapons.

But the new officers may not be enough to quell some residents' fears of rising crime. A few are coming up with their own plans.

LEE: This whole initiative started about two months ago with just a casual conversation among some of the Miller residents.

That's Patrick Lee, a Gary resident and business owner who lives in the city's affluent Miller Beach neighborhood.

LEE: A few months ago there was an increase in crime in the residential areas. There were some day-time break-ins and there were quit a few. It look like a rising tide so people got together to talk about it.

They talked about hiring their own security firm to patrol Lake Street, Miller's main business corridor, and parts of the adjacent neighborhood.

LEE: Not a complaint against the Gary Police Department at all. But there's just not enough of them. And, we thought as a community there could be some way to partner.

And, partner they have. Starting Friday, Lee says a private security firm will use marked and unmarked Gary police squad cars to patrol Miller for at least 40 hours a week.

The private officer will actually be an off-duty Gary officer. The firm hired to do this is owned by former Gary police chief Jeffery Kumorek, who's also retired from the Chicago police department.

The Miller Business Association and the Miller Citizens Corporation, a neighborhood organizing group, are funding the $10,000 pilot program.

John MacDonald, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says efforts to hire private security firms are becoming more common across the country.

MACDONALD: I'd say the trend you see is mostly tends to be instituted by business improvement districts so they tend to be an association of both merchants, land owners and maybe adjacent residents.

Of the 300 or so business improvement districts nationwide, MacDonald says about 20 percent have hired private security firms.

Areas of San Diego, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have done this. MacDonald conducted a study to determine if efforts in L.A. led to crime reduction.

With the addition of lights and security cameras in the business areas, such private firms have helped to reduce crime significantly, says MacDonald.

MACDONALD: It's basically extra eyes and hears. People who will call the police; Might be the first responders in any incidents but quickly have the police there on the scene. They are not really set up to basically replace the police as much as they are there to provide a force multiplier.

And while there was at first some consternation with Gary's police department about this program, the city's now on board.

Because of its financial resources, the Miller area, with a few pricy restaurants and art galleries, is doing something that other parts of Gary most likely don't have the means to do.

Patrick Lee says this effort is being done to protect what's special about Miller – which sometimes is made to feel like a step-child of the rest of the city.

LEE: It comes from a real sense of place. Lake Michigan and the beach is a very anchoring resource. People want this to be a very viable community. And it is a partnership. We want a seamless, positive partnership with the Gary police department and it sure looks like that's what's unfolding.

The added patrol in Miller will run for the next six to eight weeks. After that, the parties will decide whether it's helped cut crime.

As for Osborne, his first night on patrol started off a little bumpy. He couldn't find his squad car.

OSBORNE: This is the West lot right? Other officer: No, this is North Lot. Osborne: I thought this was West Lot.

After finding his car and his adrenaline slowing, Osborne focuses on the job he's waiting for so long and the chance to use his training.

OSBORNE: This is a dream come true. I just need to go ahead and apply everything that I've learn and put it to the test. I could go good for me or it could go bad for me. I just have to wait and see.

Many Gary residents are adopting a similar attitude when it comes to having confidence in the newest anti-crime plans.