When the City announced its Housing and Urban Development action plan in November, improving public safety in lower-income neighborhoods was one of the top priorities.
“Public safety” is a very broad phrase, and Fort Wayne has typically been viewed as one of the safer communities in Indiana. But CityHousing and Neighborhood Services Director Heather Presley-Cowen says it’s a matter of perspective.
“I think having outsider perspectives on our cleanliness as a community, on our safety as a community is so important,” Presley-Cowen says. “But for people who live here, what we know is how people feel about public safety is relevant to the conversation of whether they feel safe and whether they feel enough is being done for their neighborhood.”
She says a new partnership between the City and local law enforcement in the national initiative Cities United -- which aims to bring officials at low-income youths together to improve communities -- will be significant part in improving public safety.
She says this could be largely beneficial for young African American males who face persistent disparity.
“If we know that this particular population is facing barriers to jobs or education opportunities or what have you, the idea of addressing those barriers in a mainstream program so that everyone can succeed means everyone gets more opportunities,” she says.
The City also wants to improve relations between the police department and these individuals through public meetings and workshops.
Racial tensions between police and minorities around the country have been high due to publicized national incidents over the last several years, and Fort Wayne wants to be proactive in avoiding those situations.
Vice-chairperson of the Fort Wayne Housing Authority Andy Downs says relations between the police and minority populations have traditionally been harmonious. He also says public meetings can be beneficial, but he’s interested to see what else the City can do with the HUD dollars to foster even better relationships with these communities.
“You could also be talking about some training. For example, Fort Wayne has a very nice program for the crisis intervention trained officers who are trained specifically to deal with people with mental illness,” Downs says. “That actually helped dramatically; the number of people with mental illness to lockup decreased dramatically and were instead taken to the help they need.”
Downs says face-to-face meetings can go a very long way to improving overall camaraderie. He also says that while there’s a general sense of peace between police and minorities in Fort Wayne, proactivity can go a very long way.
“I think Fort Wayne’s pretty lucky in a lot of ways in that we don’t experience a lot of the really bad things other in communities of our size,” he says. “So for us, quite often it’s about maintaining things or catching them before they go over the edge.”
Downs and Presley-Cowen both agree that maintaining this peace is an important element to public safety. However, community leaders think dialogue is lacking between the authorities and urban youth, and want to see that improved.
Joe Jordan is the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club in Fort Wayne. He was part of a task force with the City to help address the specific problems and barriers faced by minority youths in the community.
Jordan says while he’s proud of the City and police department for being proactive, he knows what the youths would like to see changed.
“The lack of community policing -- you know, showing up when there’s not an emergency, not just showing up when 911 calls,” says Jordan. “The benefit of the doubt has never been given to us as African American men, and it’s always just, ‘You’re guilty until proven innocent’ mentality. That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of our young men.”
Jordan says he understands both the difficulties of the police department and the youths he serves on a regular basis.
He believes workshops can showcase these difficulties effectively, and can go a long way to unite both forces for the greater good.
“I think we’ve got a good start by bringing in young men to recognize the dangers officers encounter every day, and officers need to recognize how black young men feel when you’re approaching them and stopping them in what they call ‘profiling’ them all the time,” he says.
When it comes to being proactive and preventing the decline in these relationships, Presley-Cowen says the most important thing is for the City to look at itself.
“Sometimes you look outside and you see a situation in another community and you say, ‘is that us?’ So that’s what we’re doing,” she says. “Actually, literally right now, we’re saying, ‘Is that us? How do we feel about one another? How do we make sure we don’t become that community?’ And we’re blessed to be able to have that option.”
While the City doesn’t have any quantitative goals laid out on the number of individuals it hopes to reach, the plans are in place to make sure that communication is maintained -- and improved -- between law enforcement and minority youths in Fort Wayne.
Presley Cowen says that can improve the City’s overall public safety for residents.