Tag Archives: public safety

Mayor Ballard’s Very Strange, Utterly Misplaced Priorities

Anyone who lives in Indianapolis and reads or listens to the news knows that Mayor Ballard recently vetoed a bipartisan measure passed by the City-County Council that would have increased the size of the police recruit class. He says we can’t afford it.

The news also confirms that Ballard is hell-bent on spending $6 million dollars to build a Cricket field.

A friend recently sent me the following clip from a news story, in which Ballard defended his priorities.

During an interview last week, Ballard grew impassioned when asked about the decision-making behind the nearly 50-acre sports complex and the shaky history of the United States of America Cricket Association. (It has new leadership after struggling to put on cricket tournaments in recent years.) He called local reaction to the plans “very upsetting.” “We have basketball courts, swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball fields — we have all these other sports — and these guys have nowhere to play rugby, hurling, lacrosse, Australian-rules football, cricket,” Ballard said. “Why are they not allowed to have their fields, too? … I think, as a mayor, that’s a good thing to be doing.”

Let’s deconstruct this. (I will try to do so without hurling.)

Because our parks have swimming pools and basketball courts, we have an obligation to offer cricket and lacrosse fields? Why not dodgeball (which actually has more fans than cricket, at least judging from Facebook likes)? How about people who compete in hammer-throw tournaments? Curling? Surely Ballard is not suggesting that this is some sort of equal protection issue–that taxpayers have an obligation to meet the sports needs of aficionados of even the least popular sports?

And I’m still debating the propriety of government providing golf courses…

If there is one thing on which virtually all Americans agree, it is that providing public safety is a government obligation. (That may be the only thing Americans all agree on.) Police may not be as exciting as cricket (actually, they are; I’ve seen cricket), but providing adequate police protection is–along with ensuring that we can flush–an absolutely basic government function.

So, as Ed Koch might have asked, how are we doing?

According to the Mayor’s own task force, the Indianapolis police force is short 685 uniformed officers. The national average is 2.5 officers per 1000 residents; the current IMPD ratio is 1.7 officers per 1000.

The murder rate in New York City is 3.4 per 100,000. The murder rate in Indianapolis is 17.5 per 100,000.

The City is shifting IMPD assignments in a desperate effort to put more cops on the street without actually adding personnel, but given our current staffing levels, that’s equivalent to rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The Mayor’s own task force reported that there is no alternative to hiring more officers–redeploying may help at the margins, but there is no alternative to hiring more police.

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the fiscal problems created by Mitch Daniels’ tax caps. (Caps that Ballard supported, unbelievable as that is.) Constitutionalizing those caps was brilliant politics, and terrible government. The caps starve units of local government of badly needed resources, requiring not only creative fiscal management (we are running out of public assets to sell off), but also those “hard decisions” that politicians talk about endlessly but rarely if ever actually make.

The Council’s proposal would have paid for the recruiting class only for the first year; the City would have to come up with the money to pay for the additional officers going forward. That would require hard trade-offs–at a minimum, fewer subsidies to local sports franchises, fewer cushy deals for developer friends of the Mayor. It might also require the Mayor to actually appear at the legislature–something he’s been loathe to do, especially if such appearances would interfere with one of his frequent “economic development” junkets–and petition our state-level rulers to get rid of the 40 plus “funds” that currently prevent Indianapolis from setting its own priorities.

The problem is, unless the citizens of Indianapolis feel safe, we can’t accomplish any of our other goals. We can’t revitalize neighborhoods. Economic development efforts will go nowhere. The bike lanes, the Monon Trail and the justifiably lauded Cultural Trail will empty. Downtown businesses will suffer. There will be a downward spiral that will make all other efforts immeasurably more difficult.

We have a real public safety crisis in Indianapolis right now–a public safety crisis that could undo the years of progress we have enjoyed.

And instead of focusing on that crisis and working with the legislature to address it, we have an utterly clueless Mayor who is spending what little political capital he has on a cricket field.

 

 

 

 

 

Disturbing Questions

We woke this morning to news reports that five teenagers had been shot while walking along Indianapolis’ downtown canal. The shots evidently came from the parking lot of the Historical Society–where a wedding was taking place at the time.

As I write this, little is known except that two of the teens are in critical condition and no one is currently in custody.

It may be that this was one of those random acts that no city, no matter how safe or well-run, can prevent. We deceive ourselves if we believe that police can guard against every sudden eruption of violence. But this shooting, in the heart of our city and next to the canal that so many of us routinely walk or bike, raises sobering questions.

First, what is the relationship–if any–between the recent “discovery” of fiscal shortfalls in public safety and what some people living along the canal claim was a diminished police presence? (The fiscal situation itself raises very troubling questions about the honesty of the Administration’s budgeting process during an election year.)

Second, if there were fewer police in the area, was that due to deliberate decisions about deployment, and if so, what were those decisions and why were they made? One story suggested that a number of officers were called to a brawl at the fire station at West and Ohio; do we have so few police that an incident in one place necessarily leaves other areas unprotected?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, and asking them is not meant to assume the answers. But the questions need to be asked, because this event will have repercussions far beyond the personal tragedy it represents.

Civic and political leaders have been nurturing the rebirth of downtown since the 1970s. The canal is one of the “jewels” of that effort–a jewel that has been sadly neglected the past few years, as I have previously noted. It is an important amenity in a city without oceans or mountains. Developers have been enticed to make significant investments along its banks; museums and public buildings adjoin it. Maintaining it and keeping it safe for the residents and tourists who enjoy it is an important responsibility and should be a high priority of the current Administration.

When the media is filled with stories of shootings, when on-camera interviews feature onlookers declaring they no longer feel safe in the area, the result is to undercut years of painstaking effort, and to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes about the “dangers” of downtown.

Perhaps this was one of those random events that even the best policing couldn’t have averted. Perhaps it was the result of public safety mis-management.

Or perhaps we are seeing the inevitable results of the anti-tax zealotry that added tax caps to the Indiana Constitution–tax caps that are starving local governments and decimating public services.

Whatever the answer, we need to find and fix it.

I Guess Their Safety Doesn’t Count…

According to this morning’s Indianapolis Star,

“A prayer group is getting special access to the Statehouse for the opening day of the 2012 session.

People attending Capitol Commission Indiana’s prayer day at the Statehouse can show a copy of an email message to skirt an expected large crowd of union members protesting the so-called “right to work” legislation on opening day Wednesday. News of the waivers emerged after state safety officials set a 3,000-person limit on the number of people in the Statehouse at one time.

Capitol Commission State Director Matt Barnes said Monday that his group isn’t getting special treatment, noting that anyone attending a scheduled Statehouse event can use a special entrance.”

So–let me see if I understand this. The reason the limit was imposed was concern for the safety of citizens who were coming to the Statehouse (formerly known as the “people’s house”). But as we learned a couple of days ago, the safety of lobbyists with special passes isn’t a concern. Okay–I can understand why the administration might not care about the well-being of lobbyists (although, if the lobbyists are injured, who will pay the tab at St. Elmos??) But religious folks who are coming to pray? Their safety isn’t important?

I’ve frequently used this blog to advocate for greater government transparency, but someone should tell Bosma and Daniels–I didn’t mean “transparently dishonest.”

A Seemingly Simple Question

The job of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, is to produce thoughtful public and nonprofit managers—people who can deal with the increasing complexities of public and regulatory policy. That requires spending a good deal of time analyzing what rules government should and should not enact.

Rulemaking is an especially important task of the various agencies set up to regulate highly technical industries like telecommunications. Too little regulation and the strong will take advantage of the weak; too much, and it can stifle competitiveness. In highly specialized, technical areas, corporate interests can—and do—lobby in relative secrecy for sweetheart deals, or—even worse—to prevent passage of regulations that would benefit the general public.

Case in point: mobile phones and broadcast radio.

Around the world, over 1.1 billion phones contain chips that allow them to receive radio broadcasts. Although it is estimated that 33% of phones here in the U.S. have those same chips (which cost approximately 30 cents each), in our phones they’ve been turned off. So people living elsewhere can and do listen to radio on their cell phones, but we Americans can’t.

That leads to two questions: why not, and why does it matter?

Cell phone users in the U.S. can’t choose to have radio on our phones because when the ability to download first threatened the music industry’s business model, the carriers—AT&T, Verizon, etc.—thought including broadcast radio would undermine their ability to sell music packages. With the passage of time, and development of free services like Pandora, it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be a market for such sales, but carriers continue to block radio from cellphones.

That refusal mystifies me. When you download news or music to your Blackberry or IPhone, you are using a lot of bandwidth, and bandwidth costs carriers a lot of money. (Granted, they pass along the cost to users when they can.) Turning on that 30 cent chip would free up badly needed bandwidth and save carriers money. As an observer with—admittedly—a very minimal understanding of the industry, I find their continued resistance to offering radio puzzling.

If the issue was just that carriers are making a seemingly dumb business decision, it wouldn’t make much difference to most of us. (I’m certainly not going to lose sleep over AT&T’s profit margins!) The reason this matters to the rest of us is that it significantly affects public safety.

When natural disasters occur—think Joplin, Missouri—the government needs to be able to issue immediate alerts, and those alerts need to reach the widest possible audience in the shortest possible time. It is literally a matter of life and death. In 2006, the federal government passed the Warn Act, requiring wireless providers to develop the capacity to issue those emergency alerts. Thus far, the industry has done very little to build the widespread text-messaging system that it is developing to satisfy the Act.

Adding radio to cell phones would allow government to use the existing emergency broadcast system, which has proven much more reliable than cell phone towers. (When electricity goes, so does the cell system.) Furthermore, texting may get the attention of young people, but many of the older Americans most vulnerable to natural disasters are unlikely to check regularly for text messages.

The lack of an emergency notification system is a problem government can solve tomorrow by passing a simple regulation requiring carriers to use that 30 cent chip. Experts insist that there are no technical impediments, and costs would be far less than building out a text-based notification system.

Why doesn’t the government require this? What am I missing?