Public housing agency fails to come through on safety pledge

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- When Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Chief Bryan Roach took a walk through the Laurelwood community last October, they heard an earful from residents who were worried about their security and public safety.

“Had we not walked there, I don’t know that that would have been communicated,” said Roach after the Laurelwood visit, unaware that since 2016 the Indianapolis Housing Agency forbade any crime and safety reports to be shared with IMPD.

“We’ll work on the management issues,” the mayor told the residents. “They’re much more easily fixed than your personal safety.”

During that visit, Interim IHA Executive Director Jennifer Green promised Hogsett and Roach the agency would work closely with IMPD to develop a system-wide enhanced safety plan that would be heavily dependent on the hiring and assignment of off-duty part-time officers.

“We’re working with IMPD,” said Green that day. “We have off-duty police that patrol here during the evening, so we’re looking at their schedules to see if there’s other times when they can be present.”

What followed was a hastily called meeting between IHA management and IMPD to talk about property and resident safety.

“We walked about part-time security,” Roach told us on Nov. 1.

“We have put together a plan to make sure that we’re utilizing the funds that we have in an appropriate way, that we have the funds we need and we have a plan,” Green promised less than two weeks later. “We have to look at when off-duty policemen are patrolling.”

Just after Thanksgiving, Green articulated the urgency of putting a 2019 security update in place that relied on off-duty police officers.

“We need it to be before the first of the year because we want to get any contracts we need to do in place with our off-duty [officers] before the end of the year.”

And that’s where the grand enhanced security plan seemed to grind to a halt.

As recently as late January, Roach indicated that he was unaware of any new talks with IHA about its plans and the agency refused to approve 2019 contracts for off-duty officers, leaving public housing properties without patrols for the first six weeks of the new year.

In the span of less than three days in late January, two people were shot in the 3000 block of Baltimore Avenue in the Blackburn Terrace Apartments on Indianapolis’ east side as internal IHA records show no part-time officers were on patrol at any of the agency’s more than dozen properties despite the $383,726 set aside in the 2019 budget for such protection.

Internal IHA reports show significant hikes in 2018 crime statistics from 16% to 61% at the largest public housing properties.

In Marion County, 38 of 183 homicides last year were linked to public housing apartment complexes and Section 8 homes.

At a pair of premier IHA properties downtown, Barton Tower and Barton Annex, a longtime manager who residents say kept a lid on crime was replaced with the manager from the troubled Blackburn Terrace property.

“We have undesirables, meaning we have people that are on the ban list, people that are selling drugs are running in and out of the building,” said Bonita Davis, former president of the Barton Tower Residents Council. “I was over here just the other morning and nobody’s checking ID, people going back and forth and residents are aware these people aren’t signing in who shouldn’t be there, but they’re not doing anything anymore.”

Sources indicate the Tower and the Annex, along with two other IHA properties, will be taken over by a management team hired by a lender that is financing renovations at the sites. The takeovers effectively remove IHA from running several of its properties after losing control over two sites in 2018.

“It’s a good thing that change is coming about,” said Davis. “It's time for a new day.”

IHA refused comment on the pending property takeovers, the lack of off-duty officer contracts and the absence of new safety plan negotiations with IMPD. IHA finally approved contracts for off-duty officers to begin patrolling this week.

Monday night, a City-County Council committee will vote on the nominations of Charles Johnson and Sherry Seiwert to the IHA Board of Directors as Mayor Hogsett has promised the makeover of that nine-member board by March 1. Hogsett will appoint five members to the board, including one resident.

The remaining two members will be appointed by the Indianapolis Citizens Empowerment Foundation, which will also pick residents to serve.

In the current IHA newsletter, Green writes that, “If ICEF fails to nominate and appoint its two (2) members prior to the March regular board meeting, IHA reserves the right to appoint the two (2) members selected from any residential property.”

The IHA Board meets Tuesday afternoon, one month after failing to convene a quorum for its January meeting.

Mayor Hogsett’s choice to lead IHA, John Hall of the Wichita, Kansas, Housing and Community Services Department, takes over March 4.

“I’m encouraged about a new board that will be asked to lead the agency along with John Hall,” said Hogsett. “He also has an important decision to make with some other key leadership positions including a COO, so it's an exciting time for IHA.”

While Hall is in contact with current IHA management, there is no indication whether any actions being taken at this time reflect his thinking or priorities for the agency.

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