Ten Point Coalition’s Turf War With The City’s East Side

Turf War

Illustration by Curt Merlo

After four straight record-setting years of homicides in Indianapolis, Reverend Charles Harrison was hardly in a mood to celebrate. As the president of the city’s Ten Point Coalition, a faith-based group that aims to combat gun violence among young black men, walked through a gravel parking lot toward Fervent Prayer Church off 38th Street last June, he knew he would be congratulated. He would soon open a press conference marking a year without a homicide in TPC’s patrol zone on the far-east side—an area that had recorded three murders the year before. Yet Harrison couldn’t muster a smile. Indianapolis was on track to break its homicide record for the fifth straight year. We have so much work left to do, he thought.

Even so, he allowed himself a moment at the press conference to appreciate what TPC had helped achieve in its first year there. “I have learned after doing this for 20 years that no one group, no one agency, can curb the pattern of violence alone,” Harrison told the audience, which included Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, police chief Bryan Roach, and a representative from the Indiana Attorney General’s office. “It takes a village. I believe that good things happen when community, the city, law enforcement, grassroots organizations, and faith-based [groups] come together.”

The celebration didn’t last long. While every speaker had been careful to note that the no-homicide streak was limited to TPC’s patrol area—about 5 percent of the far-east side—a poster on an easel trumpeted “No Homicides in One Year” on the “Indianapolis Far East Side.” To some residents who saw a photo of the poster on the city’s Facebook page, it seemed as though TPC was claiming it had prevented homicides in the entire area—and ignoring the 17 people who had been killed there in the past year.

“This is a clear implication that you do not care about black lives,” activist Shelley Covington wrote in a letter to Harrison, Hogsett, and Roach shortly after the press conference. “The community will hold you three accountable for ignoring those lives that were lost.”

Covington held a “Die and Lie” protest four days later in front of the Indianapolis City-County Building. Protesters played dead on the concrete, “Their Lives Matter!” signs atop their chests, as Covington called out the names of the 17 homicide victims she claimed the city was ignoring.

Harrison says the whole thing was a misunderstanding. He acknowledges the poster could have been misleading, but says the Indiana Attorney General’s Office produced it, and that the press conference was the first time he saw it. “It was people who were just trying to be critical who made those comments,” he says. “Why did that become the focus when black people are dying in this city at an alarming rate?”

But misrepresentation isn’t the only criticism TPC has faced in recent years. The organization—which won a national award from the FBI for its peace-keeping patrols of the Butler-Tarkington and Crown Hill neighborhoods in 2017—has drawn the ire of City-County Council candidate Dee Ross. Head of the Ross Foundation, a nonprofit that holds peace walks, provides grief support for mothers who have lost children to violence, and offers job placement assistance to far-eastside residents, Ross claims that as Harrison’s coalition has expanded to the east side, it has been siphoning away grant money that once went to his organization, a group that has been working in the area for years. TPC remains one of the city’s most promising crime-fighting forces, but it has met fierce resistance as it expands beyond its northside home.

Forty-five years ago, a group of churchgoing men in Jeffersonville, Indiana, stopped a 13-year-old Harrison from reaching for a gun—and spending the rest of his life in a 6-by-8-foot cell. After his 21-year-old stepbrother was shot seven times in Louisville—likely over drugs, Harrison says—he couldn’t contain his rage when he saw the men whom he believed to be the killers hugging his parents at the funeral. There was one thought in his mind: revenge. Harrison was making plans to get his hands on a gun, but a group of men from his church sat down with him and told him: No. Not like this.

Harrison listened.

The episode ultimately set him on a path to becoming a pastor at Barnes United Methodist Church in the crime-ridden Crown Hill area. In 1999, he founded TPC with a group of fellow black ministers in the surrounding United Northwest Area as a faith-based street outreach organization focused on reducing violence, expanding educational opportunities, and finding jobs for young men of color between the ages of 12 and 24. “I almost ended up going down the same path as my brother,” Harrison says. “And if it hadn’t been for the men from my church, I probably would have.”

TPC, whose history is now well-known here, began with a small group of clergy members, residents, mothers of homicide victims, and former gang members—known as O.G.s, or original gangsters—who would walk the streets near Crown Hill. The idea was to engage at-risk youth before they turned to dealing drugs, and to act as peacemakers who might bridge the gap between gang members and the police. O.G.s were critical for the Ten Point model, Harrison says. They had the street cred to reach individuals pastors and police couldn’t, and could share their stories—I was once a dope dealer like you—with the young men of a neighborhood, telling them street life leads only to prison or the grave.

TPC’s neon-yellow vests became a nightly sight in the 46208 ZIP code, as teams of volunteers ranging in age from their late 30s to mid-50s led peace walks, watched over hotspots, and shared street-level intelligence with police four nights per week. Some walkers for TPC received stipends of $9 to $11 per hour. In its first year, homicides in TPC’s target area fell 40 percent. With that success on its résumé, the group received a total of $300,000 in grants from the city, as well as pledges for an additional $300,000 over the next couple of years.

“I almost ended up going down the same path as my brother,” Harrison says. “And if it hadn’t been for the men from my church, I probably would have.”

Ted Feeney, the former president of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association who invited TPC into his area in 2015, remembers the neighborhood when it was ranked one of the most violent in the country by NeighborhoodScout.com, a website that compiles crime data. In fall 2015, six of his neighbors were shot and killed in a 10-week period, including the drive-by shooting of a 10-year-old boy a few blocks from his house. Feeney says the patrols of yellow-vested TPC volunteers walking the streets made residents feel safer and led to instant results. “They were outside engaging with residents, trying to find the bad actors,” he says. “It became a way for people to become more comfortable working with law enforcement.”

TPC won an award from the FBI in 2017 for its work in that area, and was hailed as a national model for addressing urban violence. Harrison met with leaders from 36 cities, from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to share strategies for expanding the TPC model to their own communities.

Mayor Joe Hogsett declined to extend TPC’s Greg Ballard–era $100,000-per-year contract with the city, pointing to the fact that they were the only crime-fighting group not going through the traditional grant-application process. So TPC began applying for public grants administered by the Central Indiana Community Foundation like everyone else. Meanwhile, the coalition continued to grow. In December 2017, the Indiana Attorney General’s office awarded TPC a $50,000 grant to seed its expansion to the far-east side, between 38th and 42nd Streets and Post and Mitthoeffer Roads, an area rife with drug trafficking and gang violence. But when Harrison’s group arrived a month later, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by a grassroots organization that was already operating there.

Like Harrison, 29-year-old Dee Ross’s life was shaped by loss. The eastside community activist, now a candidate for Indianapolis City-County Council District 14, grew up in the 42nd Street and Post Road area and has lost numerous friends to gun violence. But unlike Harrison, he didn’t have a group of older men looking out for him—he was raised in poverty, and was once the leader of the Post Road gang, a group that terrorized the east side with robberies, break-ins, and drug dealing during the 1980s.

Seven years ago, when Ross was 22, two of his friends shot each other to death over $50 at an apartment complex on 43rd Street. That was his wake-up call. “Enough was enough,” he says. “I stopped selling drugs and moved back in with my mom.”

He was determined to get a job and make something of himself—anything to avoid going back to the streets. He was hired as an assembly engineer at a Honda factory in Greensburg in 2013, and a year later, he was making enough money—“more than I’d ever made, and it all came from me,” he says—to return home and help his community. He started the Ross Foundation in 2014 to combat violence among young men on the far-east side.

“I used to hang out on the block all day, selling drugs and gangbanging,” he says. “But I turned my life around, and I hope my example can have a domino effect on others in the community.”

Ross believes his organization, with its staff of 15 employees, 20 to 35 volunteers, and an annual budget of $50,000 to $70,000, can de-escalate conflicts before they involve the police. “We do toy and backpack giveaways, hold Easter egg hunts, and lead peace marches,” he says. “We draw the community out to try and figure out why they’re killing each other in the first place.”

Ross says TPC only walks the streets a few nights a week, an effort he characterizes as “standing at a gas station.”

The Ross Foundation knows the eastside gang members it needs to contact to convince people to put their guns down. According to Ross, that’s what TPC lacks as it has expanded beyond its home turf. He claims that Harrison’s group, with its high profile and brand recognition, has been starving eastside grassroots organizations like his of grant money. “Ten Point just walks around in vests,” he says. “They don’t go into the trenches, and they don’t know where those areas are because they’re not from the community.”

Ross says that while his foundation engages with the neighborhood every day—knocking on doors, visiting schools, attending community events—TPC only walks the streets a few nights per week, an effort he characterizes as mostly “standing at a gas station.”

“The community has stated time and time again that we don’t want Ten Point there,” he says.

Alexandra Bishop, a 25-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives off 42nd Street and Arlington Avenue, says she hasn’t seen much of a presence from TPC, and thinks existing groups are better suited to reach the community’s young people. “I don’t see any impact,” she says. “Ten Point patrols a really small area, and there’s still a lot of crime.”

What’s more, Ross says, TPC has never been keen to partner with other groups like his foundation. He complains that as TPC attracts national attention, those responsible for awarding grants shift money from local groups to Harrison’s initiative. “They’re blocking potential grant funding from going to organizations that are actually doing the work,” Ross says.

Harrison wishes organizations like the Ross Foundation would stay in their lane, focusing on their strength—community engagement—while letting TPC handle the streets.

For its part, TPC says it is in the community—teams of 10 to 15 volunteers patrol the area between 38th and 42nd Streets and Post and Mitthoeffer Roads four nights per week. Leroy Smith, the leader of the TPC patrol teams on the east side, says when TPC arrived in the area, there was no trust between the community and the police. “We didn’t even realize there were other organizations working out there because nothing was being done,” he says. “We want to collaborate with other groups, but we also want to make an impact.”

IMPD East District Commander Jerry Leary sees TPC as a partner that allows law enforcement to build trust with residents, and disagrees with the notion that they don’t know the right people on the east side. “I rely on them,” he says. “They have connections in the community to get us to the right person to talk to when things are going on. They’re a bridge.”

Reverend James Jackson, the senior pastor at Fervent Prayer Church who invited TPC to the east side in 2017, says the group is doing work that other organizations in the area can’t or won’t do. TPC doesn’t give away backpacks or hold basketball tournaments like the Ross Foundation because that isn’t the organization’s focus, he says. While the Ross Foundation concentrates on community engagement, TPC is an experienced presence in the streets.

What’s more, Harrison says TPC has never tried to claim sole credit for reducing homicides in the area it patrols. “We don’t want to displace anyone,” he says. “We want to work with existing organizations. We wouldn’t be effective if it weren’t for all the other groups.”

According to Smith, eastside residents regularly thank TPC volunteers. “We know the community respects us because they tell us,” he says. “The Ross Foundation says we aren’t there, but we are, four days a week. Just because they don’t see us doesn’t mean we’re not out there.”

TPC’s streak of 430 days without a homicide in its far-eastside patrol area ended August 23, when 15-year-old Ashlynn Nelson and her 16-year-old brother, Nicholas, were shot to death in the Postbrook East Apartments on 41st Street.

“There does not seem to be a place of safety from this senseless violence,” Harrison wrote on Twitter. “My heart is just broken.”

It was a reminder that, after the city’s 89th and 90th homicides of the year, all the groups on the far-east side share a common goal: to stop the violence. TPC is potentially taking resources away from longstanding groups there. But the organizations aren’t necessarily doing the same type of work, despite having to compete for the same pool of funding: approximately $2.5 million in annual crime-prevention grants from the CICF (awarded in $5,000 to $100,000 increments) and $300,000 in violence-prevention grants from the mayor’s office.

Leary, the IMPD commander, says many organizations are doing valuable work in the area, and that the success of one doesn’t mean the failure of another. “I can’t say that one’s more effective than the other, because they do different things,” he says. From his point of view, it’s hard to oppose any organization that can help police build trust with residents.

Harrison agrees, but he wishes organizations like Ross’s would stay in their lane, focusing on their strength—community engagement—while letting TPC handle the streets. “Let us do what we do well,” he says.

While infighting consumes these nonprofits competing for grant funding, Indianapolis remains on track for a record number of homicides for the fifth straight year. At the moment, the organizations seem incapable of joining forces. Although he’s the target of a lot of the criticism, Harrison is not blind to the stakes.
“The question is,” he says, “‘how do we put aside our egos and begin to work together as a team for the good of our children and our city?’”