On a sunny fall afternoon a 4-year-old preschooler got off her school bus to the delight of her waiting mother. Looking down, the young girl suddenly saw something shiny lying in the grass between the street and the sidewalk.
Before closing the door of the bus, the bus driver had seen the child bend over and pick up something, which caused the driver alarm. The driver quickly got up from her seat and instructed the girl to hand over the straight razor she held in her hand. Although the possibility of serous injury was avoided, both the driver and the parent were shaken. The 4-year-old remained naive to the danger that had confronted her.
Just a week later, a Fort Wayne police officer pulled his squad car over to the side of a street to speak to a high school student whom he had recognized. As he walked around the front of the car, he did a double take as to what was lying on the side of the street. The officer picked up a chrome-plated .32-caliber revolver. The alert officer also discovered that there were two live rounds in the cylinder along with one spent round, and the serial number had been scraped off.
It was 3 in the afternoon when he found the gun. And where he found it was just three blocks from an elementary school. If the officer had not been fortunate enough to be where he was, within another half- hour the sidewalk would have been crowded with young students walking home from school. The possibility of one of those students spying the weapon and giving in to the temptation of picking it up and showing it off to his or her friends could have had a disastrous ending.
In Fort Wayne, once known as the “City of Churches,” the very idea that the simple routine of a child walking to school could present such dangerous risks is mind-boggling.
And yet I am aware that just last year there were three separate incidents when students walking to and from school had discovered a firearm openly lying on the ground. Weapons found such as the ones I’ve mentioned usually result because some gang member or street thug either committed a crime and needed to quickly dispose of the evidence or the suspect was having the heebie-jeebies that the law was closing in.
Citizens are beginning to wonder if, in fact, Fort Wayne isn’t starting to resemble the Wild, Wild West. And when a man is gunned down in front of a local high school in broad daylight while students are still milling about awaiting a ride home, it would seem the bad guys have no fear of the consequences and certainly no consideration of the nearby children.
Of course, this new wave of violent thuggery is not just happening in Fort Wayne. Because of the onslaught of murders 250 miles northwest of us in Chicago, residents were forced to provide a human corridor in risk-filled areas so that children could walk safely to school.
If you’re old enough, you will remember that we have been down this path before. One only has to go back to the ’90s to remember the numerous gangs and drug-related killings that seemed to dominate the headlines. It wasn’t uncommon for local police stats to show upwards of 2,000 reports monthly of “shots fired” in our neighborhoods. I knew parents who had trained even the youngest of their offspring to duck under a bed when they heard the sound of gunfire.
And as before, in order to beat back these new threats, everyone has to be on board. We cannot deny the existence of gangs wherever they might hang out, and we cannot hide from our responsibilities in confronting this nemesis.
Our police agencies must be energized to go after the bad guys as well as have the support of the courts and the community. The prosecutor’s office should be aggressive and cannot be squeamish about handing out lengthy vacations to the nearest correctional facility to those who want to live the thug life.
The neighborhoods must once again find strength in numbers and sign onto the concept of community-oriented policing. Educators must commit themselves to making sure their schools are safe enough so students are not afraid to attend and are not threatened to be violated.
And our politicians — well, perhaps they just need to get out of the way.
Another police officer I know shared a story with me of this past Halloween when he was at a school bus stop and asked a young boy who was standing with his mother if he was going out trick-or-treating that night. Before the boy could say anything, the mother quickly told the officer, “Oh, no, it’s just too dangerous to go out after dark.” What a shame.
So I ask you, who’s going to win this war, us or them?