Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part investigative series on rising crime in The Bloomingtonian called How Safe Is Bloomington, Really?
Part 1: COMBS: HARD DRUGS, GANGS, PROLIFERATION DRIVE SPIKES IN GUN CRIME, featured Perry Township Trustee Dan Combs.
Part 2: GILMORE: RISING CRIME, SYNTHETIC DRUGS VICTIMIZE THE HOMELESS, SUPPORTIVE HOUSING REDUCES LOW-LEVEL CRIME, featured Beacon Inc. Executive Director Forrest Gilmore.
How safe is Bloomington, really?
DIEKHOFF: GUN PROLIFERATION DRIVES CRIME CITYWIDE, MOSTLY WITHIN ‘SOCIAL GROUPS’
America’s national fascination with guns underpins the dramatic rise in local gun crime in recent years, according to Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff.
And while a BPD “heat map” shows lower-income areas with rentals and apartments have higher rates of gun violence, his officers respond to calls everywhere in the city, he said.
“We have gun crime all over the community,” the chief said in an interview in BPD headquarters.
The map shows firearm incidents from Curry Pike to Ind. 446, and from Rhorer Road to Marlin Hills and the Griffy Lake Nature Preserve.
Gun violence includes any crime that is attempted or committed with a gun, including aggravated assault, robbery, rape and homicide.
According to the 2023 State of Public Safety Report issued under Diekhoff’s name, gun crimes occurred in Bloomington every 2.7 days last year; someone shot at someone else every 5.2 days.
Between 2020 and 2023, crimes involving weapons in the city jumped 64%, the report says, from 765 to 1,258 last year.
Although gun crimes are increasing and occur citywide, residents are not at risk in their daily lives, said Diekhoff, who’s been chief for 16 years.
“Most violent crime is not random,” he said. “The victims and the suspects know each other.”
Stranger attacks rarely happen, and, assuming basic precautions are taken, Diekhoff said the community is still relatively safe.
“If you don’t hang out with people that you know commit crimes,” he said, “if you don’t hang out with people who use or sell drugs, and you don’t put yourself in those situations, the chances of you being a victim of a crime are pretty slim.”
‘Social groups’ involved in gun crimes
Diekhoff doesn’t identify organized drug gangs as a force behind the community’s rise in gun violence, though he acknowledged that out-of-state drug activity is part of the equation.
Identifying drug gangs per se is difficult, he said. They do not fly colors like Bloods and Crips, and gang activity is a criminal charge that is hard to prove.
“What we’re seeing is what I term ‘social groups,’” he said, defined as people who associate with each other for whatever reasons and commit crimes against each other. They may be gangs, but not necessarily.
One example Diekhoff cited is the Broadview area on the city’s Southwest side, where 10 gun incidences were reported in 2022.
“We believe a lot of those shootings were all related to the same groups of people,” he said. “… It’s the same social groups that we believe are responsible for some of those shootings.”
Other examples are incidents involving friend groups from Chicago, Detroit and other metro areas that are often associated with “shots fired” and other gun calls in Bloomington, Diekhoff said.
“We’re seeing that a lot the last couple of years,” he said.
And some may indeed come here to deal drugs, Diekhoff added.
“We have a lot of that,” he said. “We have a huge population here in Bloomington that is young and willing to try that.”
With respect to illegal substances, more gun violence in Bloomington is associated with marijuana than meth, cocaine and other hard drugs, Diekhoff added.
“Marijuana tends to be more of a cash crop,” he said. “There’s a lot more cash associated with that than there is the other, harder drugs.”
Homeless crime within the population, not gun-related
While they are not involved in gun crime, individuals experiencing homelessness is another social group that impacts local crime statistics, Diekhoff said.
“They are involved in other violent crimes,” he said.
In 2022, 31% of violent crime arrests were suspects who were either transient or living in non-permanent housing situations, Diekhoff said. That is down from 37% in 2021.
But, consistent with his social group concept, he said homeless crimes occur largely within the population itself.
“A lot of times they are the victims,” he said. “It’s not as much where they’re committing crimes against people not in their social group. But there is a lot of crime that is committed amongst the social group.”
Diekhoff cited robbery, the forceful taking of someone else’s property, as an example. The police frequently respond to calls at homeless camps for residents stealing from each other.
“There are a lot of people who are experiencing homeless that are involved in robberies, amongst themselves,” he said.
When those incidents are reported, Diekhoff said they must be classified according to FBI requirements.
“A lot of times those are considered robberies,” he said.
Gun crimes occur mostly between individuals, in apartment complexes
The gun calls Diekhoff’s officers respond to span a range of incidents, from homicides to drive-by shootings to accidental discharges.
“We’ve had drive-by shootings,” he said.
But most gunfire involves disputes between individuals, Diekhoff said.
“Instead of fist fights, which is what we used to have, they pull out guns and fire them off,” he said.
And gun-crime hotspots are located mostly in and around apartment complexes, Diekhoff said. The perpetrators, who are often from out of town, aren’t buying houses and shooting up their neighborhoods.
“They’re going to rent apartments,” he said. “They’re going to stay with people they know in rental properties.”
In addition to the metro-connected gun violence, IU parties are another example of individuals from outside the city who are involved in gun violence here, Diekhoff said.
While gun crimes do occur at student gatherings, such as a Little 500 party last year by the Ind. 45-46 Bypass, they do not represent a high percentage of the total.
“Those events draw people from out of town,” he said. “They come to Bloomington; everybody’s carrying guns anymore.”
Gun offenses likewise occur in downtown bars, Diekhoff said. But, as with IU parties, they do not comprise a significant percentage of the total.
“Unfortunately, people carry guns to bars,” he said, adding that some bars now pat patrons down before allowing them to enter.
National fascination with guns boosts local crime
Regardless of the type or location of gun crimes, gun proliferation in society is the driving force behind the rising statistics, Diekhoff said.
“It’s easy to buy a gun now,” he said. “There is obviously this national fascination with guns.”
That fascination’s impact on the community has been accelerated by some societal factors in the past few years, Diekhoff said.
Like Indiana did last July, states have enacted “constitutional carry laws,” which essentially make it legal for individuals to carry weapons, openly or concealed, in public, at any time.
Diekhoff understands the concerns citizens have when they report someone downtown with a gun, but there’s nothing that can be done.
“You may not like it,” he said. “But it’s not illegal.”
The Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police lobbied against the bill, arguing it at least should have required of gun safety classes and safe storage, Diekhoff said.
“The number of accidental shootings, the number of suicides every year, continue to increase,” he said.
States pass laws all the time to protect people’s safety, Diekhoff said. But the Second Amendment is a hot-button issue that can’t be discussed rationally.
“For guns, it’s, ‘Nope, can’t touch that,’ and it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Gun purchases and crimes, both locally and nationally, reached all-time highs during the pandemic, Diekhoff said.
Gun arrests in Bloomington peaked in 2020 at 88, he said. Last year the figure dropped to 60.
The proliferation has also been driven by rising crime nationwide, Diekhoff said.
“I think that people think, ‘I’ve gotta have a gun to be safe,’” he said. “… I think it’s playing off people’s fear of crime, thinking that a firearm will protect me.”
BPD cooperating with federal, nonprofit agencies to address gun crime
In the absence of sensible gun laws, Diekhoff and his department are working more closely with federal agencies and non-profits to take what limited steps are possible.
They’ve strengthened relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Marshals Service, which can track guns better than state and local agencies, he said.
For example, shell casings collected at crime scenes here are submitted to ATF for analysis and comparison to determine if the guns were used in Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit or other areas, Diekhoff said.
“That happens,” he said. “… A lot of our gun stuff is repeat people doing it.”
Another strategy is working with the nonprofit Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to provide gun owners with free locks to help prevent accidental shootings.
“Lots of people with guns, they don’t necessarily know how to store them safely,” he said.
Increasing gun crime also strains community-police relations, Diekhoff said. Officers are trained to approach most situations with an understanding that guns could be present.
But community members often take offense at their interactions with police officers, for example flashlights at routine traffic stops, he said.
“They don’t know who they’re approaching,” he said of the officers. “They don’t know it they’re armed. So, they’re going to take subtle steps to try to make sure they stay safe.”
Steven Higgs is a retired Bloomington journalist, photographer, author and IU journalism lecturer who occasionally still produces.