In one 24-hour period last month, Fort Wayne Police Department officers seized six handguns and a rifle and made five arrests, including two for homicide.
“The day started off kind of normally,” said Sgt. Tim Hughes, who leads the department's homicide unit. Then, “we started getting hot leads and actionable intel – and it just kind of kept growing. As the day went on, it became obvious to us that we needed to act.”
“The quicker we can move on an investigation and the more people we can put on an investigation, the greater the chances that we're going to be successful,” he said. “There's no way around it. If you stall and you wait till Monday, you run the risk of witnesses leaving the area, you're going to run the risk of evidence being disposed of. ... You have to attack it very aggressively right from the start, with a lot of people.”
The detectives asked for help from the vice and narcotics and gang and violent crimes units and from the SWAT team as they surveilled homes and served warrants.
“It just seemed like after we would get one guy, something would come up that would lead us to the next guy,” Hughes said. “We just kept rolling with it.”
Detectives ordered in food and called spouses to say they wouldn't be home for dinner. When the streak ended about 5 the next morning, most of the unit's members had worked 21 hours straight, Hughes said. One of the team members put in a 25-hour shift.
“We got a lot of guns off the street and we took some very dangerous and very bad people off the street that day,” Hughes said.
Nobody is celebrating. Last year, homicides dropped dramatically. But the recent longest day was triggered by a month of violent incidents, including four homicides and a spate of drive-by shootings.
If there is a pattern to the level of violence in Fort Wayne, no one can discern it. “I know that sometimes these things seem to come in waves,” Hughes said. “I really don't know what the year's going to bring. But whatever happens, I know that our homicide team is ready to meet the challenge. ... They do their job and they do it well. They do it with their whole heart.”
Much of the recent violence appears to have been gang-related. Some of the victims were not.
“We've had three people who were hit by gunfire – and one killed – who did not live outside the law, but yet they fell victim to it,” Hughes said. “The 8-year-old boy, the 13-year-old boy and the 49-year-old man who was killed over on Senate (Avenue) – not one of those victims was the intended target. In fact, the one on Senate, we believe they got the wrong house entirely.
“Just because you live in a nice neighborhood or you're not in a gang or you're not dealing drugs doesn't mean that it's impossible for this violence to affect you or someone that you care about.”
Years pass and the faces change, but the same scenarios keep playing out in the same neighborhoods and on the same streets. Young people engage in pointless confrontations that turn violent. As Fort Wayne UNITED Director Iric Headley said last year, his organization focused first on young black males because they tend to be involved in a disproportionate number of homicides, either as perpetrators or as victims. But there are offenders of every race and both genders. And every time someone is hurt or killed, families are devastated, and the attackers throw their own lives away in the process.
Fort Wayne UNITED and other groups are looking for what it takes to break the cycles and patterns of violence here. Some of the answers may lie in developing better relationships, offering more training and job opportunities, and making mental health services more accessible, Headley said. “I'm encouraged today that we have a community at large that has said, this issue means something to us.”
Meanwhile, though, police must focus on the job in front of them – getting illicit weapons out of circulation and violence-prone people into jail.
You would think it would be harder than ever to kill someone and get away with it. Houses with Ring doorbell-cameras, video recordings at schools, churches and businesses, ever-more sophisticated DNA tracking. All of it can sometimes help.
But what most often makes the difference is someone daring to come forward.
“One of the best things that you can take into court to put in front of the judge is a living, breathing person who can testify as to who did what,” Hughes said. “DNA is great; video surveillance is great. But to have that person sit there with courage and point to the defendant and say that's the guy that did it and this is what I saw him do, you can't beat that.
“We have a lot of people call us ... they'll just whisper a name and say, hey, that's who you need to be looking at. Well, sometimes that helps us, sometimes we can take that information and we can go out and find physical evidence or surveillance footage to support that and that's good enough. But sometimes it's not. I can't walk into a courtroom and tell the judge, well this is the guy that did it because an anonymous voice on the telephone told me so.”
More people are talking to the police these days. There seems to be more trust, Hughes observed, perhaps because of TenPoint Coalition's nightly neighborhood walks and the efforts of the department's Community Policing officers.
“I think, frankly, a lot of people in the public are just tired of the violence, and their conscience is getting the better of them. ... They want to help get these people off the street,” he said.
You don't have to work around the clock or lie in bed thinking of ways to solve cases. But you need to remember that FWPD detectives do, and you need to be willing to help if it ever comes to that.
“It's everybody's problem,” said Hughes. “Homicide is everybody's problem.”