INDIANAPOLIS -- One hundred and forty-four people have been murdered in Indianapolis this year – the city's deadliest on record. It's a milestone marked by the graves of victims who are disproportionately young, black and male.
Updated homicide numbers released Monday night by IMPD brought 2015's total above the previous record – 143 – set in 1998.
The rise in violence began in 2013 when, after a five-year stretch without more than 100 annual homicides, the city's murder rate jumped nearly 25% -- from 96 in 2012 to 126 in 2013.
The pattern continued in 2014, when 135 people were killed. Despite a lull during the first half of the year, it would also continue into 2015.
IMPD Chief Rick Hite said the violence was in a way evidence of the success of his department's strategy of busting up larger crime organizations.
"When we take 120, 130 people off the street, that's going to leave a void, and for a period of time there's going to be an uptick in violence," Hite said. "Whenever you start a new project that happens, and we have to remind them crime goes up during that period of time."
Hite also attempted to reassure residents that violence came primarily for those involved in crime – a claim supported by statistics, but often unconvincing in the face of evidence of just how indiscriminate violence in the city could be.
'It's never been like this'
On August 31, 2014, the body of a missing 15-year-old Ben Davis student was found in the backyard of a west-side home. Police said they believed Dominique Allen had been killed in an abandoned home nearby. Her body had been badly burned.
In the two weeks surrounding Allen's death, seven other people were murdered.
Four months prior, 24-year-old Nathan Trapuzzano was fatally shot while on a morning walk by Simeon Adams, then just 16 years old. Aside from petty robbery, Adams never offered a reason for the father-to-be's murder. When the judge who sentenced him to 55 years in prison asked him if he had any appreciation for what he did, Adams said he did not.
Two days before Trapuzzano's murder, four people were killed, including the triple homicide of Martha Zuluaga, James Czajkowski and Stephen Herold on March 30. Four more people were killed in the three days after Trapuzzano's death.
On Nov. 10, 2015, while her husband was making an early morning trip to the gym, Amanda Blackburn was raped and murdered in her own home. The Blackburns' infant son Weston was in the next room, unharmed. After two weeks of intense attention from around the nation, IMPD arrested three men in connection with Blackburn's death and an alleged spree of burglaries that preceded it.
Two months earlier, 10-year-old Deshaun Swanson was killed just four miles east on Graceland Avenue when an unknown suspect fired into a home from a moving car. Swanson was inside with his family at a gathering for an elderly acquaintance who had recently died. Three other people were shot, but survived.
As of Dec. 29, Swanson's murder had not been solved, and there were no known suspects in the case.
A toll not evenly paid
Victims like Amanda Blackburn and Deshaun Swanson seemed to have no commonalities, aside from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But their disparate tragedies did not propel 2015 to record levels of violence.
As other homicides dominated headlines, black men died in Indianapolis at a rate of just over one every four days. They ranged in age from 2 to 82, but most were young. The average age of a black man killed in 2015 was 27. Twelve were 18 or younger.
Black men died violently at a rate of 4-to-1 compared to white men. More than five black men died for every black woman killed.
In a city where black men make up about 12.6 percent of the population, they accounted for 61 percent of all murder victims.
If black men were killed at the same rate as white men, only eight would have died this year. The city's total homicide number would be 64.
Compounding the problem, black men's killers tended to look like them, according to IMPD crime statistics. Most homicide suspects were also young, black men. Most had prior criminal histories. Some, like 18-year-old Larry Taylor – now accused in two murders – are linked to multiple homicides this year alone.
IMPD Chief Hite says police have to fight a culture war as well as a crime war.
"We glorify violence, to a certain extent," Hite said. "And people buy into that notion. I want my name out there … they walk around with information about crimes they committed. They brag about it on social media. So we know for a fact that there's a certain amount of prestige, or street cred as they call it, that goes along with that. And we're sending a message that in a modern society and a civil society, that's not acceptable."
Changing of the guard
To the extent that his legacy will be in part defined by the city's deadliest year ever, outgoing IMPD Chief Rick Hite remains confident of his strategy over the past three years.
"I think the idea of a purposeful mission of policing is you leave when you recognize that you've done all you can do, and I've done as much as I can do with the resources that I've had to work with, and it's time to move on," Hite said.
Hite will be succeeded by Troy Riggs, who served as public safety director for the city of Indianapolis for most of Hite's tenure as chief.
Riggs has promised the department will worker "harder, smarter" and employ a data-driven approach to policing.
"I've been in an administrative role, so you haven't known me as a police chief," Riggs said. "You haven't seen some of my visions as a police chief."
Riggs' chance to implement those visions and reverse a three-year trend of increasing violence begins next week.