Rev. Charles Harrison's Crime-Fighting Coalition Is in the Line of Fire
Several nights a week, three middle-aged men keep vigil in portions of Indianapolis that largely exist in the past tense, discarded wrappers that once contained something of value. This boarded red-brick building, they remember, used to be a grocery store. The empty, snow-covered lot on the corner was the site of a home, a nice one. The van in which the men are traveling tonight—one of this harsh winter’s coldest—groans as it skids to a stop in front of a house on the near-northwest side. The porch lamp, a single exposed bulb, is one of the few sources of light on the block. A man lived there, they say. He was duct-taped to a chair and shot dead.
The man was Terry Day, one of Indianapolis’s 125 homicide victims in 2013, the highest number recorded here in seven years.
On streets to the east and west of this one, in neighborhoods like Riverside, Crown Hill, and United Northwest, the stories told by Eddie Owens, Darryl Jones, and Anthony Neal ring the same: abandoned, razed, dead. The men will measure the success of this three-hour shift as they do the others: A good night is a quiet one. Owens is one of the few paid employees of the Ten Point Coalition, a faith-based group whose members—90 percent of whom have criminal records themselves—want to prevent violence, specifically gun violence, among young African-American males in the city’s urban core. Jones and Neal are volunteers. They call themselves O.G.s—Original Gangsters.
These nightly sweeps, bare-bones affairs that require street smarts and shoe leather, owe their meager existence to an unsteady stream of taxpayer dollars, grants, and donations. And yet, according to at least one city official, Ten Point is an “integral” part of fighting crime in Indianapolis. Jones, one of the volunteers from the van, is more blunt: “We go where the police can’t.”
Two areas that Ten Point patrols were among the nation’s most dangerous last year, according to NeighborhoodScout.com, a real-estate website that marries FBI statistics on homicides, aggravated assaults, rapes, and armed robberies with census data and mapping technology. One of the neighborhoods, which includes the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, ranked as the 17th-most dangerous in the country. The other, bounded by Fall Creek, 38th Street, and I-65, was the 20th. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department patrols these streets, too, but Ten Point occupies a space between the cops and the criminals: the precarious middle.
Last summer, Jones, armed with only a neon-yellow vest, the kind favored by road crews and runners, showed up to a crime scene on the near-northwest side, where a young woman had been stabbed. He arrived at the same time as the victim’s family members, who were armed with handguns and intent on shooting the assailant. Jones stepped in and convinced the family members to put away their weapons.
“I feel like we are doing this by ourselves and fighting a losing battle,” says Rev. Charles Harrison.
Ten Point crews are often alerted to potential flashpoints by the IMPD’s staff chaplain and sometimes even the department’s higher-ups. Their bright vests serve as a kind of human yellow crime tape; the 25 volunteers and four full-timers routinely act as buffers separating the police, grieving friends and family, or warring factions. They broker deals between rivals. They share street-level intelligence with law enforcement and watch over potential hotspots. They offer curbside counseling, referring scores of people to social programs and job leads. They play basketball with those who are open to changing their ways and, for those who stay headstrong, eventually pray at their funerals.
Ten Point and its vocal president, 53-year-old Rev. Charles Harrison, have a knack for finding trouble even when they’re not looking for it. In February, a Marion County grand-jury investigation prompted by Democratic Prosecutor Terry Curry turned up at the doorstep of one of the organization’s full-time outreach workers, prompting calls of corruption from one corner and cries of a political witch hunt from the other. Republican Mayor Greg Ballard and his administration’s support of the group have drawn criticism; Harrison charges that city Democrats publicly ignore Ten Point’s efforts while privately undermining its progress.
“We’re the peacemakers,” says Owens. Yet Harrison and Ten Point find themselves in the line of fire, both on and off the streets.
Rev. Frank Moore, the man who inspired Harrison to enter the ministry, describes his one-time student as a prophet. And, like that of any good prophet, Harrison’s narrative is a compelling one: He almost chose a gun over God.
Once, when Harrison was 13, the phone at his family’s home in Jeffersonville, Indiana, rang in the middle of the night. He watched as the caller’s message brought his father to his knees. Harrison’s 21-year-old stepbrother had been killed.
That night, the stepbrother, also named Charles, had been across the Ohio River in Louisville, riding in a vehicle with several friends. He was shot seven times, dumped from the vehicle, and left to die on the roadside. The likely motive: drugs. Charles picked himself up from the ground and staggered almost a mile in search of help. Eventually, he reached a home where someone called 911. But before EMTs could get him to a hospital, he bled to death. (Charles’s son, Juwan, who was just 1 year old at the time of his father’s death, would meet a similar fate years later.)
Harrison felt a thunderbolt of rage when next he saw the men he suspected of pulling the trigger. “His so-called friends, the ones who ended up killing Charles, they came to the wake,” he says. “That to me said, when you’re in the street, friendship means nothing. It’s all business. There are no friends in The Game.”
Not long afterward, Harrison and a few others decided to take matters into their own hands, tracking down Charles’s killers and working to acquire guns. Before Harrison was able to execute the retaliation, however, a group of adults from his church learned of the plan and confronted him. “It was just a matter of those men talking to me, showing me they cared by getting involved in my life at a very personal level—that was enough,” he says. “They steered me in the right direction, and I truly believe that led to my calling.”
By 17, Harrison had set aside a promising athletic career (he played football, basketball, and baseball and ran track at Jeffersonville High School), and he began spending more time at church, struck by the energy of the new pastor, fresh from seminary and just 11 years his senior. “I remember this little fella in the congregation staring at me all of the time,” says Moore, then 28. “I’d look at him when I was preaching, and he was just glued to me. Charlie would show up to church meetings wearing a ball cap—he was a great athlete, wonderful running back for his high-school team—and just sit and listen. I eventually invited him and some of the others to my home and taught them to play chess. Not only was Charlie athletic, he was competitive, very determined, and while he was fair, he always played to win.”
Swayed one Sunday by a Moore sermon—“Come to the Feast”—Harrison approached the pastor after the service, gave his life to Christ, and explained that he felt “the calling.” Moore mentored the young man and, Harrison says, had “a profound effect on my life at a point where I might have gone either way.” Harrison completed his undergraduate degree at Indiana University in Bloomington, and then received a Master of Divinity in Delaware, Ohio, at Methodist Theological School. Upon graduation, he was appointed pastor of a United Methodist Church in New Castle, Indiana, where he spent seven years before his bishop transferred him to Barnes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, in 1993.
“I was concerned when he first started preaching,” says Moore, who was pastor of another UMC congregation in Indianapolis when Harrison took over at Barnes. (Moore now works in Philadelphia.) “He was imitating me, had all of my idiosyncrasies, my hand gestures—everything. I pulled him aside one day and said, ‘Now, listen, Charles, I’m going to tell you the same thing my mother told me: ‘God called you to be you, not someone else.’”
Harrison found his own voice in 1998, when he heard Rev. Eugene Rivers speak. Rivers, a Pentecostal minister, founded the first Ten Point Coalition in Boston to combat violence in his neighborhood. The project’s success inspired then–Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican presiding over a city that saw 162 homicides in 1998, to invite Rivers to talk to local clergy and community leaders. At a rally on the near-north side, Rivers urged the audience to “put our lips with our hips in the streets, meeting young people where they live.”
“Hearing Rev. Rivers speak reminded me of what happened to my stepbrother Charles, reminded me of the mistakes I almost made as a teen,” says Harrison. “It seemed like a natural fit—Ten Point was something I needed to be involved with.” Harrison’s past dovetailed with his future, and over the years he found an unflinching mission that was uniquely his own.
“Charlie is what I would call a prophetic minister,” says Moore. “His heart has always been in the street. He’s always taking care of the poor and always putting love and justice above all else. A lot of us are preachers in a priestly sense: We visit the sick, we counsel married couples, we offer guidance—basically, we minister. Charles does all that, but he walks with gangs, challenges the police and politicians. He brings God’s word to the city, to the government, just like those Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Amos challenged the government of their time. He speaks truth to power.”
With his speech in Indianapolis, Rivers inspired as many critics as converts, however, and Harrison found himself torn between both camps.
Mayor Goldsmith gave a speech at the rally, which was attended by numerous GOP officials. That prompted The Indianapolis Star to describe the city’s public embrace of Ten Point as an “old-fashioned tent revival” that devolved into a “Marion County Republican convention.” Harrison, intrigued by Rivers’s message but weary of the spectacle, told The Star, “We were angry because it seemed like [Republicans] were putting politics before our children.”
Goldsmith continued to champion Ten Point, which established a chapter in Indianapolis in 1998 with Harrison as president. The group got $50,000 in start-up cash from the city, though it would go on to survive primarily on donations and nonprofit and government grants. In its first year, homicides in the neighborhoods Ten Point patrolled fell while grant money rose—$250,000 from a variety of sources, including the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, and pledges for an additional $300,000.
Since then, money and murders have fluctuated. In February 2011, the City-County Council approved a proposal to shift its authority to hand out Community Crime Prevention Grants—Ten Point’s primary funding source—to the Indianapolis Parks Foundation. Harrison says the change resulted in ex-offender programs getting a bigger slice of the pie than outreach operations like Ten Point. In 2010, the group received $93,000 in city crime-prevention money; in 2011, the year of the changeover, it got $31,000—and nothing in 2012. Last year, Ten Point had a budget of $179,000, which covered the $25,000 salary of each of its four paid employees; the rest is spent on day-to-day expenses (gas, transportation, and so forth). As a 501(c)(3), Ten Point is required to conform to the same accounting and filing standards as a church.
“Kids are no longer resolving fights and disagreements with their fists,” says Harrison. “They’re turning to guns.”
At the height of Ten Point’s influence, Harrison’s teams watched over trouble spots in five Indianapolis ZIP codes. Now, financial realities have forced the group to pull back to two (46208 on the near-northwest side and 46218 on the near-northeast); Harrison says he simply doesn’t have enough resources to put more workers into communities and pay for longer hours (volunteers get a stipend of $12 to $15 per three-hour shift) or multiple patrols (a team in each ZIP code goes out for three hours, five times a week). Ten Point is trying to do more with less, periodically accepting special invitations from IMPD to visit other areas of the city, like Broad Ripple or downtown.
“I would like to expand their influence, if we can find the funding, but we don’t ask them to do things they can’t do,” says Mayor Ballard. “Ten Point offers to help, and we would be foolish to decline their help. They can relate to the street much more easily than the average cop. Their heart is in the right place. It is probably more mission zeal than any of us can comprehend.”
The current pattern of violence is robbing #Indy of an entire generation of young men of color. It must stop.
— Mayor Greg Ballard (@MayorBallard) March 12, 2014
Harrison is convinced the murder rate would be higher if not for his teams’ efforts. By his estimate, Ten Point might have prevented as many as 40 homicides last year. “We’ve called off retaliatory hits, actual hits!” he says. “We’re doing things the police can’t do. We know the community, we know these kids—we’re engaging them on their turf. Our people have credibility with them because they’re out there every day. A lot of street workers used to be those kids, but now they’ve come back through the church or wherever and they’re interested in cleaning up what they once messed up.”
African Americans were victims in 108 of the city’s 125 homicides last year. Frustrated by what he sees as indifference on the part of some city leaders, specifically black Democrats, Harrison is not shy about sharing his opinions on TV (he’s frequently interviewed by reporters at crime scenes) and in the newspaper. He often turns to Twitter to draw attention to crimes involving guns and isn’t above calling out politicians.
President Obama & other big city mayors r now addressing the problem of blk on blk gun violence. Thank u Mayor Ballard 4 caring.
— RevCharles Harrison (@charlesharriso5) March 13, 2014
“Where are our black elected officials?” he asks. “If the Klan killed as many blacks as blacks have killed blacks, they’d all be screaming from the mountaintop. But they’re not. They’re quiet. I feel like we are doing this by ourselves and fighting a
losing battle. And there’s no outrage over this epidemic.”
In January, Ballard recognized Ten Point’s efforts with a Community Advocacy Award at the annual Mayor’s Celebration of Diversity Awards Luncheon. But Harrison, who identifies as a Democrat, is exasperated by the insinuation—which circulates in both conservative and liberal circles—that the support it receives is some kind of quid pro quo from Republicans expecting the organization to round up black votes. “Ninety-five percent of us are Democrats,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. It’s gotten to the point where I think Democrats want us to fail because they see this as a Republican thing, or they don’t want to help because it makes the opposition look good. That’s crazy—people are dying.”
Harrison fears Ten Point has become a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. In his 16-year tenure, he’s seen violence on the street reach an epidemic level. The homicides Ten Point works often begin as simple arguments. Many are drug related. Disputes occur over territory, robberies, and retaliation. “Kids are no longer resolving fights and disagreements with their fists,” he says. “They’re turning to guns, killing one another without a thought.” The flood of illegal firearms—the acquisition of which is the quickest way to earn respect, Harrison says—is only part of the problem and isn’t necessarily a new development (though IMPD did seize 51 more guns in 2013 than in the previous year). A poor economy and high unemployment, coupled with a recent surge in heroin use, he argues, have exacerbated a dangerous situation, making it toxic.
Christopher Winship, a Harvard sociology professor who has written extensively about Ten Point’s efforts in Boston, says the real value of such organizations is that they provide law enforcement with what he calls an “umbrella of legitimacy,” allowing police to work in troubled areas by partnering with street-based groups and trading on their reputations. In return, the groups’ members receive assurances that people in targeted neighborhoods will get a fair shake. “That’s why this umbrella is so important,” says Winship. “If something happens and the police act in a justified manner, they’ll be kept out of the rain of criticism.”
But proof that outreach groups are effective at preventing crime is elusive. “Good opportunities to demonstrate the integrity of [such organizations] only come along every once in a while,” he says. “The more history there is, the more evidence people can point to, the more they can indicate the integrity of the partnership, the better.”
Troy Riggs, director of the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, finds it difficult to quantify Ten Point’s success using numbers or data. But he says anecdotal evidence points to the group being an invaluable partner. “Last summer, [Harrison] called and said, ‘I’m seeing more and more young people carrying weapons. It scares me, and I’m worried we’re going to start seeing problems at local malls.’ Eventually, we were actually seeing that kind of problem, too. But his call came weeks before. We took care of the problem, and Ten Point helped with that by patrolling some of the malls. But the point is, he was proven right.”
On one recent Thursday, Harrison sat in a large room in the Barnes UMC on 30th Street, where he presides over three services every Sunday. Behind his right shoulder, an easel held white paper with a diagram of a crime scene in black Magic Marker, tools Ten Point uses in much the same way as a football coach draws up plays. The stick figures showed police on one side of a homicide and a crowd of mourners on the other. The Ten Point team fell in the middle, a literal and metaphoric condition.
Amos Brown, who hosts a radio show on AM 1310, says Ten Point occupies a “peculiar” position. In a 2012 op-ed for The Indianapolis Recorder, Brown wrote that the organization had “become the surrogate leadership of our African-American community in the eyes of Mayor Greg Ballard.” He continued that Ten Point had “unwisely allowed themselves to be used by the mayor,” which enabled Ballard to “operate under the fiction of only talking with Black leaders who like/support him.”
Brown contends it is important to recognize that not all African-American leaders speak with one voice, nor do the ministers and preachers of the so-called Black Church. They aren’t monoliths, but Brown believes the mayor treats them as such, tuning out diversity in opinions.
“Past mayors and elected officials would make sure they were touching a number of bases,” says Brown, like the NAACP and black city-county councillors. “Ballard talks to Ten Point at the exclusion of those other groups. This has created a perception that Ten Point is the only faith-based group that can communicate with the Ballard administration. Do they speak for the [entire] Black Church in Indianapolis? The answer is no. Of course, no. Now, [Ten Point does] have a mission, and they do it admirably with a lack of personnel and dollars.”
Ten Point deserves more funding, Brown believes, but no one has been willing to sit down with Harrison to help the organization grow. When Black Expo encountered financial difficulties in the 1970s, the Lilly Endowment provided a grant for the group to create a fundraising structure. Brown thinks Ten Point could benefit from something similar, but he doesn’t see anyone with political clout getting involved.
“What happens is, the funding goes to the people who know how to write the proposal,” says Brown. “It’s not that Ten Point isn’t professional—they are—but that’s not what they do. They put out fires.”
For his part, Ballard insists he “will work with anyone who legitimately wants to help us reduce crime,” though “political types need not apply.”
Brown believes the problem of gun violence demands more than the efforts of a single group. “In the past, when we’ve had other major civic problems or projects, the best and the brightest would be pulled together,” he says. “We’ve done it for the Super Bowl. We’ve done it for Final Fours. I think that’s got to start at the top with the mayor, with the chamber of commerce, the big boys and girls who are the leaders of the private sector. Do we want to bring another Super Bowl here? Other cities are reducing their violence, and we are not. That, by itself, should ring a bell—it’s time to call a meeting, and it’s got to involve all of us.”
For his part, Ballard insists he “will work with anyone who legitimately wants to help us reduce crime,” though “political types need not apply.” In March, he announced the launch of a new broad-based “Your Life Matters” initiative aimed specifically at addressing black-on-black violence among young people in the inner city’s most-affected neighborhoods, with the support of leaders within the African-American community—including Harrison. The plan includes support for parents, outreach, mentoring, and reentry assistance for ex-offenders.
“I know of no prominent African Americans who criticize the selfless, courageous activities of the Ten Point Coalition,” says Ballard. “If there are critics, they haven’t been there at the crime scene at midnight in sub-freezing temperatures.”
If in the past Ten Point has resembled a political football, earlier this year it looked more like a punching bag.
On February 4, federal agents, state troopers, and sheriff’s deputies served a grand-jury search warrant at the home of Ten Point employee Byron Alston. Prosecutor Curry confirmed that Alston was part of an ongoing investigation. Law enforcement seized a computer from Alston’s house, and Alston later told Fox 59 News that investigators asked if any Republican had offered him a large sum of money—$3 million—and whether Ten Point had been the target of an extortion attempt.
In a prepared statement, Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Mayor Ballard, called on the prosecutor’s office to “elaborate on the rationale for this seemingly politically motivated line of questioning to dispel rumors that this is just politics as usual.”
Curry says reactions to the investigation were overblown and misinformed. “Absolutely, unequivocally, Mr. Alston was never asked that question,” he says. “I have been through the transcript, read the questions and the answers. Nothing remotely close to what’s been alleged was asked.”
Alston has a criminal record (he has been convicted on charges of burglary, criminal confinement, and sexual battery). But Harrison believes the grand-jury probe is politically motivated—either retribution for some of Ten Point’s people endorsing Ballard in the last election or an attempt to undermine the administration. “I’m not afraid to tell the public the truth about what’s going on out here,” says Harrison. “So, part of this is probably to shut me up. But it’s not going to work. You can look under every nook and cranny there is, but you’re not going to find anything because nothing’s there. I’ve been serving the church for 28 years, the work I do for Ten Point is as a volunteer—I don’t take a dime—and my reputation speaks for itself.”
Harrison doesn’t sugarcoat Alston’s past and acknowledges that many affiliated with Ten Point have criminal histories, but he sees rehabilitation and redemption as part of the group’s mission and contends that he and others keep a keen eye on their street representatives. “We help police solve murders,” says Harrison. “The IMPD comes to us for that kind of intel. So, if something was going on, if someone was doing something they shouldn’t, we’d be the first to know it.”
Curry won’t speak to the specifics of the grand-jury proceedings. “At this point in time, there’s no investigation aimed at Ten Point or anyone in that organization other than Mr. Alston,” he says. “[Harrison] has criticized us, which is fine—he can do that—but I’m not going to presume to tell him how to go about their efforts in the community. If [IMPD Chief Rick] Hite and Director Riggs are working with him in a positive role in reducing crime and patrolling area hotspots in the city, more power to them.”
Riggs corroborates Curry’s assertion, insofar as nothing he’s heard about the Alston investigation implicates Ten Point. Regardless, he says, “I would hope if one of my 3,200 employees did something wrong, and we’ve had that happen, people wouldn’t base their impressions of my organization on the actions of one individual.”
Harrison is aware of the irony—that Ten Point, a collection of “peacemakers,” finds itself at the center of such angst. “Yes,” he says, “I would say we work to settle conflict in the streets, and yet, in the political world, we’ve probably been the group that’s created the conflict between Republicans and Democrats over the issues of crime and violence. And that’s what’s sad.”
Back on the streets, in the van, Ten Point’s O.G.s express skepticism when it comes to politicians and plans, and downright disdain for the critics. “I don’t see anyone else out here right now,” says Jones. “People have no idea what we do.”
It’s not unusual for the men to receive encouragement from the very people they’re trying to keep apart—Man, are we glad you guys are here. That was the case last summer, when they were called to the scene of a shooting where a large group had massed. “Looked like a Civil War lineup,” says Owens about the angry mobs on both sides. “Ugly,” says Jones. “Was going to get nasty.” But the volunteers stepped into the fray and managed to calm everyone down. Do they get intimidated in situations where a false move or cross word could cause bloodshed? “Intimidated? By no means,” says Neal. “Am I sometimes scared? Oh, yeah.”
Jones adds that the men have a lifetime of experience sizing people up: “A lot of times, we know what these kids are going to do before they do.” Owens finishes the thought: “Because we were them.”
As the van cruises through an industrial area, Owens shakes his head.
“Lots of factories with their lights on,” he says. “But where are the jobs? I don’t see jobs. Do you? Yeah, no wonder kids are mad. And that’s what we’re dealing with: young men and women who are angry. They’re tired of Dad not being around, tired of seeing Mom struggle. And you know what? They get fed up and do something about it. But a lot of them take the wrong path and get caught up in bad, bad things.”
There are, however, success stories.
Neal and Jones, who grew up in the neighborhood, run an open gym at Harrison’s church several nights a week. Hundreds of kids and young adults show up. One of them, Michael Grooms, has been playing there for years. He wasn’t sold on Neal and Jones at first—Grooms was charged with trespassing several years ago—but over time, he’s come to see value in their wisdom and way.
“They’ve been there, just like me,” says Grooms. “When people hear where they’ve been, see what they’ve done [since], and how much they care—that carries a lot of respect, you know? They go out of their way for us. That means a lot.”
Inspired by Jones and Neal, Grooms says he’s even thinking about becoming a Ten Point volunteer. He graduated from high school a few years ago and recently lost his job. He wants to go to college and hopes to become a coach. He has a 4-year-old daughter and lives with the girl’s mother. They keep safe by watching TV at home, but, Grooms says, “Being a couch monkey isn’t living, you know?” Still, it beats the alternative. “A guy could get killed for just about anything—like walking to the store.”
Some of Grooms’s friends haven’t been so lucky. He has a drawer full of T-shirts memorializing deceased family members and friends—the prayer card of the inner city. “I didn’t want my face on a T-shirt,” he says.
Having access to positive role models like the men of Ten Point has helped Grooms stay out of harm’s way. But he also has another source of motivation. As a teenager, he made a pact with some of his buddies.
The goal was to live to 21. Grooms is 23.
Too many of the others who made the pact ended up on T-shirts.
Audio courtesy Terri Stacy at 93.1 WIBC
This article appeared in the April 2014 issue.