Just months after Wade Ingram became police chief in Gary, Ind., in January 2012, he began an unusual initiative: visiting the family of each of the city’s homicide victims.
That’s meant many visits for Ingram.
Violent crime is down in nearly every category in Gary — but not homicides. The city has recorded 43 murders this year, tying the 2012 total. The murder rate is still far below those of previous decades, when the city was dubbed the nation’s murder capital. Even so, things got so bad this year that Gary’s mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, asked the governor to send in the Indiana State Police.
One recent death in Gary was that of DeWayne Young, 39, who was shot in his car in September. Soon after, Ingram and a group of police chaplains have crowded into a small living room to meet Young’s mother, Shirley.
“I’m Chief Wade Ingram. I’m the police chief. I want to say that I’m sorry about what happened to your son,” the chief says. Associate pastor Janice Ward holds Shirley between prayers.
Ingram knows what it’s like to lose a child. His oldest daughter drowned 20 years ago.
Back in the car, on the way to meet another family, Ingram doesn’t doubt these visits have some residual value — but he says that’s not why he is making them.
“It’s not a strategy. It’s just something that I humanly do,” he says. “Even though I’m the police chief, I am part of the community and what I see is, I see a family … that’s in grief. They have questions.
“Once my detectives come out that night and get statements, they don’t usually deal with them too much. … And with this we develop a rapport with the families.”
Tom Tyler, a professor of law and psychology at Yale who examines the relationship between police and the community, says police departments across the country have learned that success doesn’t necessarily lead to trust.
“They discover that the really crucial issue for people in the community is, do they treat people they deal with fairly, with dignity? Do they have compassion for the problems and suffering of people in the community?” Tyler says. “The kinds of things that are more about the connection that people in the community have with police on a kind of human level.”
Tyler says the chief’s own officers could prove to be his biggest obstacle. Ingram agrees.
“Some of my officers are not in favor of me doing this, because many of these individuals themselves have criminal records or may have been involved in criminal activity themselves,” Ingram says. “But we there for the families.”
The next visit is the aftermath of a recent murder-suicide. Pastor Chester Jones of New Macedonia Baptist Church is leading the brother, sister and the victim’s five children in prayer. It’s the day before the funeral and the victim’s brother, Randall Mitchell, says the family was surprised when the chief came to call.
“After what you hear out on the streets today — you know, the rumors about Gary and everything — the last person you expect to see knock on your door is the chief of the police of Gary. So, It was — it was uplifting,” Mitchell says.
Ingram says that death levels the playing field for everyone.
“These guys live high risk lifestyles. They usually come from poor families. Many of them have dropped out of school. Those seem to be some of the common denominators. But the main thing is that their families are suffering,” he says.
The Indiana State Police recently issued a report criticizing the Gary Police Department’s resources, level of training and what it called a lack of respect for the chain of command.
Ingram agrees with some of the findings. He says that while the serious work of rebuilding the department continues, he’ll continue reaching out to those people who understand the city’s violence problem better than anyone else: the victim’s families.