Jeff Cottrell came from a two-parent home as a child growing up in Anderson and didn't need to turn to his neighborhood streets. He did it anyway. He wanted to be with his friends — not at the movies or the mall, but on the streets stealing cars and selling cocaine. It caught up with him, and when he was 19 he went to prison for five years, at which point Cottrell said he decided to ditch that lifestyle.
Now 50 years old and a resident of Indianapolis, Cottrell is one of four Indy Peacemakers, a team of full-time community resource managers tasked with helping Indianapolis overcome its crime and violence problems. In 2018, Indianapolis saw 159 murders, two
more than in 2017 and the fourth year in a row the city set a new record high. Six people were shot to death in three separate shootings within 24 hours in April.
Indy Peacemakers are part of the violence reduction team in the Office of Public Health and Safety (OPHS). They report to Shonna Majors, the city's first director of community violence reduction in OPHS.
Cottrell said he joined in part because he used to work at Arsenal Technical High School as a behavioral interventionist and saw some students just weren't getting what they needed out of school.
"This is no knock on the schools," he said, "but sometimes a kid just doesn't have success in school for whatever reason. Because of that, he ends up going to the neighborhood. Just because he's not in school doesn't mean he doesn't need resources. It doesn't mean he doesn't need someone to give him a little help and give him a little guidance."
Majors said one of the keys to this initiative working is that Indy Peacemakers, in some capacity, can relate to the people they interact with every day.
"For me, it was an opportunity to give back to the neighborhood that I helped tear up," said Robert Fry, 45, who grew up in Indianapolis and went to now-closed Broad Ripple High School and is the longest-serving Indy Peacemaker. "I say that because when I was a teenager, I was someone that was carrying guns, selling drugs, having shootouts."
Shortly after starting in the summer of 2018, when Mayor Joe Hogsett launched the Indy Peacemakers initiative as part of a broader anti-violence approach, Fry helped calm down a "social media beef" where he said teens where ready to start shooting.
"If you keep doing this, you're gonna die," he told them. "And if you don't want to die, stop doing the things that you're doing."
Fry is the only remaining original Indy Peacemaker. The other three — Casby Williams, Joaquina Everette and Cottrell — were hired in March. Part of what they do is take referrals, mostly from Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, based on violence that has already happened or could happen if no one steps in.
Indy Peacemakers are assigned to IMPD districts. Majors said she assigned them to their districts based on what kinds of crime and violence are most likely to happen there. Everette, 50, for example, has a medical background and works in the downtown and southeast districts because that's where Majors estimated her expertise would be most useful.
Aside from being calming and reassuring voices in the community, Indy Peacemakers have connections to resources and inform those leaders that they'll be referring people to them.
"We don't have a list of resources where we go to a family and say, 'Here you go, good luck to you,'" Majors said. "We actually connect them with those resources. We've already made connections so that people know that they're coming, and it's not just a cold handoff."
Williams, 35, emphasized that it's not just about going to the teenager who's threatening on social media to shoot someone. He said it's important to understand what's happening around that teenager, to learn about family and community circumstances that might be underlying causes to violence.
There's also a 30-day follow-up with every family referred to Indy Peacemakers, where they can track things like employment and if the situation they responded to has gotten any better. Majors gives quarterly updates to the Indianapolis City-County Council Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee.
This line of work can be dangerous, especially when it comes to dealing with known shooters. None of the Indy Peacemakers said they've felt like they've been in real danger since being on the job — Fry said he's gotten used to that overarching sense of what danger might await but that he's "never comfortable" — and there are measures in place to make sure it stays that way.
Majors said Indy Peacemakers use the buddy system when responding to a referral — showing up to a house that was shot up the night before, for example — and they let IMPD officers know where they'll be to cut down on response time if they need to make a call. Indy Peacemakers also have uniforms that distinguish them from police.
It's an extensive operation that requires quick thinking, community connections and an ability to see something more than just violence that pops up here and there.
"You do get a better understanding of how the city and government really have a sense of community with the people," Williams said, "making sure their well-being is there."
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
Duane Love lives in Fort Wayne, but distance did not stop him from attending The Martin Center Sickle Cell Initiative's 2019 Indiana Sickle Cell Conference in Indianapolis on April 26. As someone who has sickle cell disease, Love feels it's important to attend as many sickle cell events as possible.
"I try to make all the conferences, at least all the sickle cell conferences," Love said.
The conference featured presentations by experts who shared the latest science regarding sickle cell disease as well as coping strategies for those living with the disease.
For those unfamiliar with sickle cell disease, James Taylor, professor of medicine at Howard University and director of the university's Center for Sickle Cell Disease, explained the disorder distorts red blood cells into a shape resembling the end of a farming sickle, reducing the body's ability to transfer oxygen thus creating inflammation, sensitivity to touch and pain. Even rubbing a paintbrush against a hand could cause a sickle cell patient pain. The
only possible cure for sickle cell is a bone marrow transplant, so doctors are often unable to cure sickle cell. Most of the time, physicians focus on managing symptoms by prescribing pain medication.
"If I need to give you an opioid, I'll see you frequently," Taylor said. "Other than that, if you are not on any treatments or you don't need opioids very often, I'll see you twice a year because I have nothing to offer you. It's a really sad [situation]."
Taylor also shared lesser-known scientific findings, such as the complicated relationship between sickle cell disease and opioids. Opioids are an important part of combating pain in sickle cell patients, with nearly 100% of sickle cell patients using opioids at some point. However, people can develop an addiction within three days of taking opioids, so Taylor said doctors must both strike a balance between addressing pain and preventing addiction and become more involved monitoring the prescriptions of patients on opioids.
"I'm not talking about withholding opioids," Taylor said. "I'm talking about treating true addiction and pain and sickle cell disease simultaneously, which is a fine balance."
Keynote speaker Marsha J. Treadwell, a psychologist and director of the Northern California Network of Care for Sickle Cell Disease, focused less on the biology of the disease and more on how patients can maintain a healthy mindset. For example, she suggested the family of patients use sensitive language, avoiding terms such as "bad blood" to describe sickle cell.
For sickle cell patients, Treadwell said spiritual activities such as praying and going to church can help patients handle pain. In addition, Treadwell recommended sickle cell patients foster healthy thinking through relaxation and meditation or just taking the time to be still and take a breath.
"Sit and notice what's happening to you right now, that the room is warm or that the chair is comfortable or that there is a low hum," Treadwell said. "... We don't judge it as negative or positive. It's just there. That kind of awareness brings us into the present moment, and that's important because we aren't anticipating pain. We aren't participating negativity but rather are just present in this moment and time."
Attendees networked between presentations, swapping tips for dealing with the disease such as finding the best physicians to visit and how to explain the disease to someone who doesn't have it. In addition to the educational experience, the conference also featured physical comforts for those affected by sickle cell disease. For example, the room was warm and blankets were available because sickle cell disease patients are sensitive to the cold.
"People don't understand the severity of the pain that we're in, Love said. "My pain could be at 11, but I could have a face of someone that's a normal person, like I'm not in pain at all. It's because I've been going through it all my life, so I'm pretty much used to it."
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
Support for sickle cell disease
For sickle cell support and resources, visit The Martin Center Sickle Cell Initiative, 3545 and 3549 N. College Ave., themartincenter.org, or call 317927-5158 or email Information@TheMartinCenter.org.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) delayed the beginning of its trial for police body cameras until June. IMPD announced the trial in February and originally planned to start a few weeks afterward. However, IMPD received more feedback from the community than expected, which caused the delay in implementation.
During the trial, police officers will operate body cameras from different vendors for 60 days, and IUPUI will collect data from both officers and the community. Then IMPD will file a report to the mayor and the Indianapolis City-County Council about if and how they should implement a full body camera program.
In March, IMPD held six community listening sessions, one in each district, where citizens could ask questions about the trial and share their thoughts. Department officials wanted to review all the information gathered before starting the pilot program, said Aliya Wishner, chief communications officer for IMPD.
LeRoy Lewis III, chair of the Northwest Community District Council, said the three major topics during the discussion in his district were when the cameras would be on, how IMPD would store the data and the trial's cost.
"It made me feel hopeful," Lewis said. "It made me feel heard. I think the proof will be in the pudding on if those things come to pass, but I am hopeful that IMPD is looking to make sure their relationship with the community is a good one."
Taking community feedback into account is not the only reason IMPD is taking time to finalize the standard operating procedure. Police Major Kendale Adams said IMPD must decide how and when to share body camera videos with the media and create the process of sharing footage with the prosecutor's office.
"It's not just us who is impacted by body worn cameras or even the community," Adams said. "It's the entire criminal justice system, so we have to get all those people on board and make sure that they are aware, and they have the proper resources to have a body worn camera be successful for them as well."
It is too late to share thoughts at a community listening session, but concerned citizens can give their opinions in an anonymous online survey ran by IUPUI. Adams said IMPD would like African Americans to fill out the survey, so the responses create a true picture of the community.
"The survey is not going to do us any good if there's no diversity to it," Adams said.
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
A link to the survey can be found in the online version of this article at indianapolisrecorder.com.