Indianapolis homicide rates are continuing to climb, concerning community leaders and law enforcement who are working together to ameliorate the situation.
2021 was a record-breaking year for the second year in a row with 271 homicides — 249 of those being criminal homicides (or homicides with intent). The troubling stats surpassed those of the previous year, which saw a total of 245 homicides.
The flood of cases has also stretched thin the city’s criminal justice system. Marion County prosecutors conducted 31 murder trials last year, but only one of them involved a case from 2021. According to WFYI Indianapolis, it often takes months or years to obtain sufficient evidence and other documentation to go forward with a trial.
According to IUPUI criminal justice professor Thomas Stucky, the lengthy process often puts undue stress on the families of victims.
“It’s really important that we think about each of these instances individually as a person whose life is lost, and that the individual’s family and friends and the community are forever impacted by that,” he said.
Experts believe the reason for the increase in homicides has been driven by a mix of social forces, including the pandemic, poverty, social conflict and the presence of illegal guns.
For example, the pandemic’s increase in unemployment rates, as well as its damaging effects on domestic violence and drug abuse, could be important factors underlying the increase in murders.
Captain Roger Spurgeon, who commands IMPD’s homicide branch, put it succinctly:
“I think there’s a lot of frustrations that are boiling over with people being more restricted than they have been in years past. And so maybe they’re more quick to anger and quick to act on frustrations than they might have been a couple of years ago.”
Research specialist Ernesto Lopez with the nonprofit the Council on Criminal Justice hypothesized that the murder of George Floyd and the following social unrest could also have been a trigger behind the homicide trend.
“It’s difficult to say what it was about George Floyd’s murder that caused or is associated with this increase in homicide, whether it’s policing, with police withdrawing, or public trust, we can’t really separate those mechanisms,” Lopez pondered.
Community leaders like Pastor David Greene said that the key player behind homicides is always poverty.
“It comes back to economics and dollars, and when you don’t have economics and dollars, you see all this other stuff manifest itself in ugly ways,” Greene said. “People are trying to make it, so they’re going to do anything to make it, and they’re going to take chances, and they’re going to take risks, and that’s going to lead to the violence.”
As for why so many homicide cases remain unsolved, Greene said the problem could be a lack of public trust in law enforcement.
According to IMPD data, the city has a clearance (or arrest) rate of around 54%. Greene thinks that due to the lack of faith in law enforcement, witnesses are unwilling to come forward with information that can lead to arrests. The pastor added that by improving clearance rates, the public might regain trust in the system, which will ultimately reduce homicide rates.
“If we don’t solve the solvability rate, or if we don’t improve that rather, then I’m not sure we will see a significant decrease in the homicides,” Greene said.
Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears further blamed the low clearance rate and solvability on pandemic-caused workforce shortages.
“The unfortunate reality is that more prosecutors are carrying a heavier caseload than what they would ordinarily carry,” Mears said. “It’s been a significant burden on our staff, they’ve done a tremendous job of making sure that we do everything we can, but there’s only so much that we can ask of the people who work in the prosecutor’s office.”
Moving forward, both law enforcement and community leaders feel the need to work together to set things in the right direction.
“That’s a bending on both sides,” Greene said. “We have some systemic changes that have to be made, and we’re going to have to work together.”
Already, Spurgeon says that the criminal justice system is regaining its pre-pandemic strength after seeing a 6% improvement in clearance rates from 2020.