Commentary: ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this’

By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – Troy Riggs has a problem and a plan.

The problem, the Indianapolis public safety director explains as we talk on the air, is one that’s been in the news.

John Krull, publisher,

John Krull, publisher,

Last year, 135 people were murdered in Indianapolis. That was the highest total in eight years.

That is bad, but some of the surrounding numbers make it even worse.

Commentary button in JPG - no shadowThe homicide rate in the city has climbed dramatically. It’s increased by nearly 50 percent over the past two years, even though the incidence of gun violence in Indianapolis has decreased slightly.

The why of this discrepancy is chilling. The people who have killed someone are taking pains to eliminate anyone who might be a witness to the crime.

Riggs says just getting tougher on crime won’t solve the problem, even though he calls for longer minimum sentences for violent crimes.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” he says.

Instead, Riggs argues, Indianapolis and Indiana will have to take a more sophisticated approach to meeting this challenge. In addition to getting tougher on crime, the city and state also will have to get smarter about crime.

The plan he’s pitching is one that involves an intensive series of interventions in six troubled Indianapolis neighborhoods where the rates of violent crime and other offenses have reached almost radioactive levels.

In addition to increasing the police presence, he wants to see the city and state improve the support system for ex-prisoners who are moving back to life outside bars and guards. He wants more job training, more education and more opportunity for those who have paid their debt so that they don’t feel they are without options when they rejoin society.

Riggs also wants to see interventions before tragedy occurs. Once again, his approach is a marriage of tough and tender – a crackdown on the “gateway” offenses that often escalate to violent crimes and the introduction of more healthy and supportive programs for young people in areas in which hope is often hard to come by.

Riggs says the only way Indianapolis will solve its violent crime problem is if every part of the city – businesses, non-profits, community organizations and churches – focuses time, energy and attention on the problem.

“Government can’t solve this problem by itself,” he says.

Calls come in. Most of the callers have specific questions about crimes or neighborhoods.

One woman, though, dials in to express some frustration.

She says she is tired of hearing that government can’t solve a problem. She says she wonders when a popularly elected government stopped being an expression of the public will – and thus a vehicle for meeting the challenges confronting people.

Riggs explains that he wasn’t trying to say government shouldn’t have a role or responsibility for solving the violent crime problem in Indianapolis. Far from it.

Government should serve as the coordinator of the effort, the bugle that summons other parts of the city to the site of the conflict, the general that directs the troops as they fight the battle.

Beneath Riggs’ argument is another one – namely, that the strictures imposed by the rigid ideologies of left and right won’t help us solve this problem. We need to resort to a system of thought often now disparaged by rabid partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

Pragmatism, the practice of doing what works simply because it works.

To meet this challenge, we need to experiment. We need to try new approaches so we can figure out what works and discard what doesn’t.

The problem confronting Indiana’s largest city – our citizens are killing each other in record numbers – is a horrible one.

So the plan to solve it – do whatever it takes – only makes sense.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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