In dueling stump speeches, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett mentioned crime one minute into his remarks, while Republican challenger Jefferson Shreve waited until after the nine-minute mark to do so—but then hammered his opponent on the subject.
It is not surprising the candidates talked about crime during the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce’s HobNob event last week. Since police departments consume a large chunk of any municipality’s budget and a majority of the public sees officers and patrol cars in the community and on the news, crime and crime prevention are always among the top issues in mayoral races.
However, 2023 is different. As Paul Helmke, former three-term mayor of Fort Wayne explained in an interview with the The Indiana Citizen, is is the first municipal election in Indianapolis since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Finding common ground has become more difficult as communities have become polarized and distrustful.
In Indianapolis, criminal homicides have been falling since spiking to 249 in 2021, but the rate remains well above pre-COVID levels. Also this year, the gun violence has been punctuated by accidental shootings involving young children.
“Anytime there’s crime, people are going to be concerned. And anytime there’s violence or shootings, people are going to be concerned,” Helmke, who is currently the chair of the Civic Leaders Center at the Indiana University Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said. “It’s clearly a legitimate issue, and I’m not surprised that it’s an issue in Indianapolis.”
Hogsett, who is running for a third term, linked the jump in murder rates to the pandemic and asserted Indianapolis was not an outlier, noting that murder rates “jumped to historic highs from coast to coast.” He highlighted that Indianapolis’ murder rate dropped 16% in 2022 and will be down double digits again in 2023.
The mayor seemed to attempt to distinguish his administration from other politicians and activists who have called for the defunding of police.
“As we proved that when you invest in mental health services, grassroots organization and fund the police department at a historic level, you can become a national leader in crime prevention and crime avoidance,” Hogsett told the crowd at the Indy Chamber event, which was held at the Columbia Club Aug. 30.
Shreve segued from his memories of coming downtown every day as a young professional to work for a real-estate developer into his main point that “the foundation of a growing city is a safe city.”
He drew attention to his public safety plan, noting his intention to bring back “civilian executive leadership” to the police department by appointing a public safety director, hiring more police officers and focusing on officer retention. He offered a comparison of the current mayor with the previous administration, saying the solve rate of crime has dropped from above 80% to near 30%.
“You can get away with murder in this city, and that is no way for our citizens to live,” Shreve said.
During this race, Shreve has pivoted in his stance on guns, which inspired Politico to dub the contest “the most interesting big-city mayor’s race” and speculate that he could provide a blueprint for other Republicans to win the top job in other major U.S. cities.
Shreve, a gun owner, is advocating for restrictions on firearms that echoes Hogsett’s position. Within the city, he wants to raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, ban assault-style semi-automatic weapons, and restore the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed firearm.
The Republican told the Indy Chamber crowd that he is a gun owner and believes in the right to “responsible gun ownership.” But in noting a 19-year-old walking along an Indianapolis street with an open beer in one hand and a gun in the other is guilty of just one crime, he said the problem of gun violence has to be addressed by giving police more tools and by pushing for more prosecution.
“We know that guns don’t shoot themselves, I get that. I’ve heard that, believe me,” Shreve said. “Yet we have a serious revolving door problem. Right now, we aren’t prosecuting reckless cases of weapons discharge. We should.”
Research, while limited, does indicate a connection between restrictions on guns and a lower crime rate. Aaron Dusso, chair of the IUPUI political science department, cited studies done when the national assault weapons ban was in place that provided “clear evidence” that the ban was hindering efforts to smuggle illegal guns from Mexico into the United States.
Even so, any initiative Indianapolis undertakes to limit access to guns will likely stumble in the Statehouse. The Indiana General Assembly has a pro-gun reputation, which includes blocking local regulation of firearms with the passage of Senate Enrolled Act 292 in 2011 and removing the requirement in 2022 that Hoosiers have a permit to carry a firearm.
Indeed, the ordinance passed by the Indianapolis City-County Council in July to restrict access to guns could only be described as “sending a clear message” since state law prevented it from taking effect.
Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s growing distaste for gun regulations—most recently in the 2022 New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen ruling, which struck down New York’s requirement for obtaining a license to carry a concealed weapon—Dusso said states have little power to curb access to firearms.
The steps the Indiana legislature can take is complicated by the state’s divide between urban and rural needs, Dusso said. A gun regulation that will address crime in Indianapolis might not work in a rural Hoosier community of only a few thousand residents.
“Working on a more complex answer to a complex problem was probably what we need,” Dusso said. “The difficulty, though, is when you’re campaigning, to explain all that is so hard. You can’t do it in a 15- or 30-second commercial, so you have to do everything by soundbite. And when it comes to political power in Indiana, it does appear that outside of Indianapolis seems to have a bit more power than Indianapolis itself.”
Shreve asserted his Republican bonafides could be an asset in getting the GOP supermajority in the legislature to bend a little on gun regulation. He told the Indy Chamber crowd that he would advocate for the city’s interest in the Statehouse and “get some control over our gun laws.”
Helmke called Shreve’s plan on guns “a good one” but noted the mayoral hopeful is in an unusual position of being slammed by both Democrats and Republicans.
The Hogsett campaign has seized upon Shreve’s changing position on guns, calling him a flip-flopper and rolling out ads that emphasize Shreve’s alleged past comments supporting gun rights. Meanwhile the National Rifle Association attacked Shreve. The Indiana state director of the NRA told The Indianapolis Star the solution to violent crime is “prosecute and punish violent perpetrators. Politicians who can’t grasp this concept don’t deserve to be elected.”
Helmke said he made crime an issue when he successfully unseated the incumbent Fort Wayne mayor in 1987. While he was mayor, he often told his constituents there are three lines of defense against crime—the behavior of private individuals and their moral compass of right and wrong; the family and extended family of the neighborhood who guide their relatives away from problematic actions; and the government, which includes law enforcement as well as social service agencies.
A mayor, Helmke said, has little control over the first two lines of defense. But for the third line, he unveiled a plan that included hiring more police officers, requiring the officers to live in the city limits and have them drive the patrol cars home so people would see the presence of law enforcement on their residential streets, and moving police headquarters to the part of town where crime was most prevalent. Also, he called for community policing and creating partnerships with neighborhood associations, faith groups and nonprofits.
When he ran for reelection, Helmke said he was able to meet the challenge of convincing residents to be patient.
“I always point out to people this takes time,” Helmke said. “It takes time to hire more police officers; it takes time to put these programs in place. So judge me not just on the crime rate going up or down or violence going up or down, judge me on what steps I’ve taken that are good and will long-range help those things go up or down.”
In addition to the gun issue, Shreve also talked about addressing the root causes of crime by eliminating food deserts and starting youth programs. He said mental health services should be bolstered, and he acknowledged the $2 million the city is spending on a clinician-led mental health response team.
“Good, noble start,” Shreve said. “But let’s really invest in mental health, in the root causes of crime, if we’re going to turn this one around.”
During his speech at the Indy Chamber, the mayor touted what he sees as his administration’s accomplishments during his two terms in office, from hosting all of the NCAA’s 2021 March Madness tournament to the recent announcement of plans to preserve the old city hall by turning it into a mixed-use development.
He concluded his remarks by outlining his campaign promises to “always value the counsel and the constructive criticism of my friends in the corporate and civic community” and to focus on what is best, good and fair.
“It has been the honor of my life to serve this city I love, alongside amazing community and civic partners,” Hogsett said. “And as I look across the room tonight, I do not see an audience. I see allies that share my vision for a more prosperous, inclusive, vibrant, welcoming Indianapolis.”
Dusso said trumping the crime statistics and mayoral promises is the public perception. The pandemic did bring an increase in crime and, as a result, the voters are seeing and feeling there is more violence, he said.
Even when numbers are improving, the public perception can lag behind, so candidates can gain an advantage by emphasizing how bad crime is, Dusso said. And that can cause communities to pull back from the alternative approaches like the mental health services from Hogsett’s administration and that Shreve highlighted because those tactics take time to make progress.
“It’s easy to campaign on, ‘More police officers, more jails, let’s go after those criminals,’ call them whatever names you want to call them,” Dusso said. “That resonates. You can put that in a tweet, you can put that on TikTok, you can say it when you’re talking to the chamber of commerce because it’s so easy and everyone kind of understands that, ‘Yeah, let’s just get them.’”