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Gary Police Chief: 'You Can't Arrest Your Way Out of This'

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Gary Police Chief: 'You Can't Arrest Your Way Out of This'

A report out last week from Congressional Quarterly Press named Gary, Indiana, the nation's 17th most dangerous city. Leaders in Northwest Indiana's largest city may have quibbled with that description a year ago, but not now. That's because after years of declines, murders are again on the rise in Gary. Chicago Public Radio's Northwest Indiana Reporter Michael Puente has more.

Ambi: Sounds from crime scene in Gary, Indiana

It's about 11 at night and cold as a Gary police detective gets out of his squad car. He's come to a school yard to begin investigating a murder. Police tape blocks off the crime scene but a woman who works at the school hurries up to me.

WOMAN: Is it a student? Is it a kid?

We'll find out later that the body is that of 18-year-old Cameron Jackson, the 64th person killed in Gary this year. And it's only October.

A witness told police that six men chased Jackson and shot him. He was left on a strip of grass just inside a chain-link fence at Gary Roosevelt High, a school known for its basketball success. It's just a block from where the famous Jackson 5 clan lived 40 years ago.

These days, the tune coming out of Gary isn't the Jackson's ABC but often gangsta rap that is more reflective of the harsher side of life here.

Ambi: clip of rap music

It's a refrain you hear a lot these days in Gary where they're closing in on 70 murders this year. That's particularly disturbing to people here because the city has been seeing fewer murders since 1995, when 132 killings got it named the murder capital of the United States.

By last year, for instance, homicides were down to 51. But that's still high for a city of just below 100-thousand and puts Gary number 1 for cities its size in the whole country.

So the increase in murders this year have people asking why? Gary Police Chief Thomas Houston says he knows one place they look is to the cops. The professionalism of Gary's police has been called into question in recent months including how the department handled a fatal car accident involving teenagers and the aftermath.

But Houston says the real issue is the young men who are doing the killing and the dying in Gary.

HOUSTON: So what do you do with a 15 or 16 year old with an 8th grade education who at 16 can drop out of school? Where do they go and what do they do? It's obvious.

Gangs and drugs are the draw, he says. And he insists it's unfair to ask police to solve a problem that society started and can't seem to fix.

HOUSTON: Well, if you take all of these things that have caved in, everything that we've done has failed, how's it now just law enforcement's problem? Get Us Out of this!! You can't arrest your way out of this.

Ambi: sounds from WLTH radio show

The problems of Gary are dissected every morning on Gary's WLTH. Radio host Ron Mohammad, a California native, says Gary's woes are directly related to a loss of jobs in the steel industry. With 6,000 workers, U.S. Steel remains Gary's largest employer but that's a fraction of the workforce it had in the '60s.

MOHAMMAD: Back in the old days when everybody knew they could get a job in the steel mill and the future would be secure for the next 20 or 30 years, I think there was less turmoil at the young ages because you kind of had a feeling of belonging, a feeling of importance.

The problems facing Gary aren't uncommon in America's older industrial cities, says author Paul Grogan. And they can be corrected.

GROGAN: I think you have to be very cautions in consigning an area or any city to the dust bin of history.

Grogan has been researching troubled American cities for more than 20 years. He's looked at how struggling areas, like the South Bronx in New York, parts of Boston, L.A. and Chicago, have made improvements.

GROGAN: It isn't about making everybody middle class. It's about establishing conditions for a normal and decent life with a good housing stock, commercial services, jobs nearby, reasonable safety on the street, recreational opportunities for children.

But number one, says Grogan, who now heads up the nonprofit Boston Foundation is making people feel safe. And that means police have to play a central role.

GROGAN: A number of cities beginning in New York a policing revolution that really showed that novel police techniques could make a huge difference in establishing a level of public safety even in very low-income, poverty stricken areas where crime had been out of control.)

Police Chief Houston says his officers are in the elementary schools trying to connect with young children, and that he's using federal dollars to beef up patrols and technology to pinpoint hot spots.

Grogan would call that a good start. But he says what's needed is a citywide strategy of community policing, where officers work in partnership with neighbors to help make a city be and feel safe.

And that, Grogan says, can attract the jobs, investment and the kind of committed residents essential to a healthy community.

I'm Michael Puente, Chicago Public Radio.

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