NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Incidents underscore need for public safety debate

Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry called a press conference back in April to tout what he called a significant decrease in crime in the first quarter of 2019.

“As you can see by the statistics that have become available in the first quarter of 2019, crime has dropped significantly in the city of Fort Wayne and it’s certainly something to celebrate,” Henry said then.

But recent violent incidents that played out on public streets and in public places suggest the mayor got the celebration started prematurely.

First, three men were arrested following a car chase Friday afternoon in which gunfire was exchanged near the intersection of Lima Road and Fernhill Avenue. The chase ended when a stolen Chrysler 300 crashed near the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo and the car’s occupants hopped a fence and ran into the zoo.

The zoo, which was crowded with visitors during the incident, was put on lockdown as police searched for and eventually arrested the suspects. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the incident. In addition to the arrests, police seized guns and drugs found either on the suspects or in the vehicles.

Then, early Sunday evening, a 20-year-old man was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Walmart at ColdwaterCrossing Shopping Center. The shooting occurred around 6 p.m. when several people were in the store and parking lot. One couple reported ducking behind a parked car when the shooting began. Another reported that a bullet hit her car.

Witnesses said they saw two men fire the shots in the parking lot before getting into a car and fleeing. But there also was confusion inside the store, where at least one person said a Walmart employee said the store had an active shooter and that shoppers should leave their carts and get out.

Police are investigating the Walmart parking lot shooting, but no arrests have been made. Andre P. Leslie, 20, of Fort Wayne, died after being shot multiple times, the Allen County coroner said. Leslie is the county’s 12th homicide victim so far this year.

“We’ve exercised a number of initiatives trying to get our head around the criminal activity in our community,” Henry said back in April. “And now we think it’s beginning to pay off with a 50 percent decrease in homicides in the first quarter of 2019 as compared to 2018 is significant.”

Statistically, 12 homicides is a significant improvement. It puts the city on pace for 24 murders, about half as many as the 45 homicides recorded in Allen County in 2018.

But statistics aside, it’s hard for the mayor, police chief or anyone else to sell the idea that the city is safer when the public can’t go to the children’s zoo or Walmart or stop at an intersection without having to be on alert for car chases and gunfire.

The past week’s shootings underscore that there is much more work to be done in terms of community safety. Whatever progress has been made, gang violence, drugs and guns remain issues that plague Fort Wayne.

The good news? The mayoral election provides an ongoing opportunity for a community debate and decision on the right path forward. Both candidates – Democrat Henry and his Republican opponent Tim Smith – have said public safety is the top priority of their campaigns. Both have committed to increasing police staffing and resources.

Henry touts the work of current police chief Steve Reed, who said his team’s focus is on getting the small percentage of individuals who are responsible for violent crimes off the streets. Smith touts reinstituting community-oriented policing tactics used during the tenure of Police Chief Neil Moore more than 25 years ago.

Truth be told, neither candidate has laid out enough specificity to strengthen public confidence in his plan to make the city safer. Both should be challenged to do so before the election. As the recent violence underscores, a rigorous debate about public safety is sorely needed.