COMBS: HARD DRUGS, GANGS, PROLIFERATION DRIVE SPIKES IN GUN CRIME
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part investigative series on rising crime in The Bloomingtonian called How Safe Is Bloomington, Really?
Part 2 will feature Rev. Forrest Gilmore from Beacon Inc. Part 3 will feature Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff. The entire series and videos from the interviews are available at (link project page here).
How safe is Bloomington, really?
COMBS: HARD DRUGS, GANGS, PROLIFERATION DRIVE SPIKES IN GUN CRIME
By Steven Higgs
Gun and other violent crimes have steadily surged in Bloomington in recent years, and citizens are misreading the threats, according to Perry Township Trustee Dan “Carp” Combs, whose office provides emergency services to the city’s southside poor.
“We’re scared of the wrong thing,” he said.
Gun proliferation and out-of-state drug syndicates, not the “street people,” are behind the rising gun crime here over the past two decades, he said.
“What we’re seeing is a very well-armed element of society – that takes money to be armed – trying to make a lot more money by using more weapons than we’re accustomed to,” he said.
Combs, who’s also a former Monroe County Democratic Party chair, responded to the 2023 Bloomington State of Public Safety report that showed violent crime rose nearly 6% in 2022.
Gun crimes continued a historic rise dating back to the early 2000s, according to the report issued by BPD Chief Mike Diekhoff.
“A firearm was used in 132 incidents in 2022,” the report said. “Those firearms were fired at a person in 70 incidents.”
In other words, someone shot at someone else in Bloomington every 5.2 days last year; gun crimes occurred every 2.77 days.
Bloomington’s historic rise in violent crime persists
The latest of eight annual public safety reports, the 2023 edition shows a 64% increase in crimes involving weapons in the three years between 2020 and 2023 – from 765 to 1,258.
Pre-2020 reports show that “aggravated assault,” which usually involved weapons, increased 464% between 2004 and 2019, from 76 to 429.
Last year’s 1,053 reported assaults – “an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting bodily injury” – represented a 7% increase over 2020, from 986 to 1,053.
Domestic assault between partners rose by 24% over 2020, from 365 to 451.
The report also shows related upticks in attempted and actual murder between 2020 and 2023. Individuals tried to kill each other 35 times in that 36-month period. They succeeded 13 times – a murder every three months.
Meth, opioid, fentanyl trade behind gunfire
Violent crime does disproportionately impact the low-income areas of the community his office serves, Combs said.
“But the gun crime, I don’t think that belongs in that low-income category,” he said.
Neither should gun crimes be associated with the unhoused and others who populate city streets, Combs said. The “level of violence” there most often involves shoves, fists and bottles, maybe a knife from time to time.
“The people out on the streets do not have access to firearms to do drive by shootings,” he said. “They don’t have access to cars to do drive by shootings.”
Hard drugs – more specifically the money associated with them – drive much of the gunfire that resonates somewhere in the city more than once a week, Combs said.
“There’s a lot of money involved,” he said. “And you can’t call the police if you have drug money.”
Combs points to historic public safety report data showing violent crime spikes that directly correlated with drug usage.
The opioid epidemic was raging when aggravated assaults hit a high of 245 in 2009. A jump from 151 to 204 between 2014 and 2015 correlates with meth and opioids. By 2019, the total had reached 429.
In 2014, most of the local meth was produced by guys out in the country who were “cooking it up in bathtubs,” Combs said. But as those operations were busted, and the essential ingredient antihistamines was banned in 2016, meth sources shifted to Mexican cartels.
From that grew the fentanyl trade that claims the lives of local citizens, from the homeless to IU students, and routes through Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Fort Wayne and other metropolitan areas.
“You just don’t cook up fentanyl in your bathtub,” he said. “… You just don’t go out and shop for fentanyl.”
Combs referred to Bloomington as a “colony being exploited” by out-of-state dealers who come here, trade their goods for our money and then export it to other communities.
“These drugs do not come from within the community,” he said. “There’s just not the resources here to make enough meth to supply the meth that’s consumed in Bloomington.”
Gun crimes impact low-income areas, downtown bars, IU parties
Shootings are common in lower-income areas in the city, where hard drug use can be concentrated, Combs said. But they also occur in parking lots, at downtown bars and IU parties.
“The gun crime seems to follow the drugs that are associated with lower-income communities and IU parties,” he said.
Abundant news reports in The Bloomingtonian and Herald-Times, along with confidential, anecdotal input from local citizens, underscore Combs’s assessment of omnipresent gun crimes.
- In April 2017, a Monroe County jury convicted an Indianapolis heroin dealer for the robbery-murder of a female Bloomington customer on South Rogers Street.
- In September 2021, police arrested a 21-year-old man who chased and shot at two others in the parking lot at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Hamburgers on West Third Street at 5 p.m.
- Between July 2021 and January 2022, The Herald-Times reported seven shootings in Ninth Street Park area. Multiple sources from the area told The Bloomingtonian that the shootings were the result of a Detroit contract on a “snitch.”
- In April 2022, news media reported four separate gun crimes on Little 500 weekend: three people were shot inside the student bar Kalao Restaurant/Rum Bar & Night Club on North Walnut Street; a man was shot in the parking lot behind Fat Dan’s Deli on Kirkwood Avenue; a house on Rockport Road was sprayed with bullets; police seized guns at a student party on Varsity Lane.
- In October 2022, multiple masked men on foot sprayed a Rockport Road apartment building with bullets.
As dramatic as the incidents and numbers are, Combs emphasized State of Public Safety reports document only incidents that are reported to police.
“Once every five days is probably understating how many shots are fired,” he said.
Guns proliferate, downtown bouncers wear bullet-proof vests
Easy access to guns both compounds the problem of drug violence and is directly related to it, Combs said. In today’s underground economy, guns and hard drugs go hand in hand.
“The ability to procure a firearm is just as easy as procuring a gram of meth,” he said. “If you’re going to see someone who is selling you an illegal, heavy, hard, nasty drug, chances are that person can sell you a heavy, hard, nasty firearm, too.”
And that creates dangerous situations for citizens who are neither involved with drug dealers nor live near them, Combs said. He’s heard of guns flashed downtown, around campus and near the Mall in response to minor interactions.
“Being in traffic, particularly around campus at night, you know, honk your horn and all of a sudden someone is waving gun, things like that,“ he said. “People are like, ‘You won’t believe what happened to us Saturday night.’”
Citing the Kalao shooting as an example, Combs said those who go downtown for the “crazy party atmosphere” are exposed to the dangers of this “illicit economy.”
“The open bars, the cheap drink nights, whiskey and someone with a gun is the worst combination that I can think of,” he said. “… It’s anecdotal, yes, but many people have told me that they simply do not feel safe in crowds downtown, in particular in the bars.”
One indicator of the dangerous new reality are the bouncers, who include a Combs family member.
“The bouncers in the downtown bars are three times the size of the bouncers when I was a young college student,” he said. “I mean, those guys are enormous.”
And these days, they wear bullet-proof vests, Combs said.
“They wear Kevlar,” he said. “What kind of job is it in Bloomington, Ind., that you have to wear Kevlar?
“That’s the level we’re operating at now with gun crimes in Bloomington.”
Steven Higgs is a retired Bloomington journalist, photographer, author and IU journalism lecturer who occasionally still produces.