As Joe Hogsett waits to cross West Michigan Street on a cold December day, a man stops to shout: “Hey, mayor. Potholes, mayor, fix the potholes.”
It’s been that kind of year for Indianapolis’ first-term mayor. Reminders of the complex problems that plague this city are never far away, whether Hogsett reads crime reports behinds his desk on city hall’s 25th floor or walks crumbling streets in struggling neighborhoods.
I spent Monday afternoon traveling those rough streets with the mayor. He drove as we talked — about violent crime, economic development, criminal justice reform, homelessness and his bid in 2019 for a second term.
Our trip started at the City-County Building, as we left to visit the signature accomplishment of Hogsett’s first years in office.
Crews started work this summer on a $575 million criminal justice center, which will include the county jail, a courts building, and an assessment center designed to provide treatment for people tormented by addictions and mental illnesses. The complex, on a 140-acre campus in the Twin Aire neighborhood, is scheduled to open in 2022.
The new buildings are overdue. The current jail, divided among three sites in Downtown’s east end, is outdated and inefficient. It also warehouses hundreds of mentally ill inmates without the space and resources needed to provide adequate treatment.
In the nearby City-County Building, inmates on their way to courtrooms are paraded through public hallways, at times in close proximity to visitors. Judges have long been concerned about security.
But the vision behind the justice center goes beyond courtrooms and jail cells. It’s an attempt to change how Indianapolis confronts crime by stopping what Hogsett calls “the revolving door of justice.”
The assessment center is key to that vision. It will give police a third option between arrest and release when confronted with someone, often drunk or high, who’s caused a disturbance but not committed a violent act.
“Officers told me they regularly have to choose between arresting a person, knowing they’ll be called back to the same place in nine months, and letting them go, knowing they’ll be back in 90 minutes,” Hogsett said. “They asked, ‘What would you have us do, mayor?'”
How the center will work
The assessment center, if it works, will divert nonviolent offenders away from jail, into treatment and eventually out of the criminal justice system for good.
Hogsett inherited the push for the justice center from his predecessor, Greg Ballard, whose efforts to build it first at the airport’s old terminal site and then at the former General Motors stamping plant were blocked by council members and community leaders.
This time around, in contrast, the council voted 24-1 to approve Hogsett’s plan. Neighborhood leaders in Twin Aire also have embraced the project, in part because about 80 acres of the site are available for commercial and residential development.
How did the mayor’s team forge a consensus?
Hogsett gives credit to his staff and to council President Vop Osili and Minority Leader Mike McQuillen.
“We’ve tried to connect and to listen,” Hogsett said. “It’s the hallmark of a lot of hard work to build trust over time.”
As it turned out, the decision not to build the justice center at the airport or the stamping plant site helped lead to major economic gains for Indianapolis. Infosys this year announced plans to build a tech hub and to create 3,000 jobs at the old airport terminal. And still-emerging plans to redevelop the stamping plant site could become one of the most important projects in the city’s history.
Hogsett deserves partial credit for those wins. Just as he owns a share for the residential and economic revival now sweeping across several core neighborhoods.
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Crazy quilt of hope and despair
Still, the city’s problems were never far from view as we drove through the near east and west sides. Indianapolis in 2018 is a crazy quilt of hope and despair, sewn in tight proximity.
On Rural Street, on the way to the justice center site, we passed a large homeless camp tucked in a clump of trees. What do you say, I asked the mayor, to taxpayers who must deal with the challenges of living near such encampments?
Hogsett pointed to the addition of 400 housing units designed to help homeless people get off the streets. That’s an important option for those who want help.
But he also acknowledged how difficult it can be to assist people, many of them beset with addictions and mental illnesses, who resist living by the rules that come with a structured environment.
Indianapolis isn’t alone in struggling to address the problem. Homelessness has surged in cities across the country in recent years, and it’s an issue Indy’s mayor, whether Hogsett or a 2019 challenger, will struggle to reverse for years to come.
Another long-term problem is evident to anyone who drives or bikes the city’s patched and potholed streets.
What about the potholes?
Hogsett insists road conditions will improve soon. He pointed to the council’s approval of $126 million for road and bridge work in the 2019 budget. He also noted plans to spend $500 million on infrastructure repairs over the next four years.
But many residents are deeply frustrated as they travel city streets that ride like an old country road.
As with most of Indy’s problems, there are no quick fixes, certainly no inexpensive answers. I’ve covered every mayor since Stephen Goldsmith, and each one has struggled with the same problems — a strained budget, crime, poverty, homelessness, neglected streets and sidewalks.
Quality of life in the city generally tilts upward, but the pace of progress remains frustratingly slow. As that man on West Michigan Street, shouting at the mayor, could attest.
As he stands on the curb, Hogsett turns to acknowledges his constituent’s comment with a crisp, “Thank you.”
Then, as the traffic clears, he scoots across the street to enter a bright yellow building that’s home to Super Tortas restaurant.
Waiting for us inside is Police Chief Bryan Roach. Our conversation about this city’s most intractable problem — violent crime — is about to begin.
Next: “The gun has become the default way to resolve conflicts.”
Contact Swarens at [email protected]; friend him on Facebook at Tim Swarens; follow him on Twitter @tswarens.
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