Strategizing and sharing best policing practices across Northwest Indiana isn't new. But as north Lake County homicides increase amid strained departments, law enforcement officials are considering collaborations in ways they haven't before.
The most recent discussion came last week, when local police chiefs and state and federal agencies met with U.S. Attorney David Capp to discuss a cooperative approach to tackling the area's violence.
Charles Porucznik, executive director of the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said chiefs from Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, and Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, plan to pool staff on a regular basis on more minor crimes and smaller investigations.
"The prosecutor is going to support this new concept of, 'let's pool our resources and let's help each other,' regardless if it's in Hammond, East Chicago or Gary," Porucznik said.
It's unclear if these efforts will be backed with Indiana State Police troopers. Gov. Mike Pence's office is reviewing a request from Gary to send officers to help man the city for 90 days.
Homicides in Gary are up by 48 percent from this time last year. The Steel City's forces have been bolstered by help from surrounding agencies, including the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force.
Region leaders say that kind of teamwork is the only way to try to stop the killing.
"It's going to have to be a united effort," Buncich said. "There's no other way to do it. The violence isn't just in Gary. It's East Chicago, it's Hammond, it's north county."
Buncich said he is sending eight to 10 squad cars to the northern end of the county nightly, spending one night in Gary, another in East Chicago and another in Hammond.
The units are making arrests and confiscating guns and cars, he said, but it isn't enough.
"You can just imagine what we're missing," Buncich said.
Another county's solution
Among the approaches officials are reviewing is a centralized unit model used in St. Joseph County.
Since 1993, St. Joseph has been operating a unit — renamed in 2003 as the County Metro Homicide Unit — composed of officers from departments in South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County.
Born from the prosecutor's office, the unit investigates all county homicides, suspicious deaths and injuries where the victim might die.
Running the multiagency unit takes a lot of cooperation, said Pat Higgins, chief of staff for the St. Joseph County prosecutor.
"When you start to talk about sharing officers, it's a delicate subject," Higgins said.
Could it work here?
"There'd have to be a lot of tweaking," said David Coulson, ATF senior special agent and One Region public safety head. "There are different challenges for Lake County."
Geography is just one of them.
Lake County's challenges
With 493,618 residents, Lake County is about twice the size. St. Joseph's largest city, the 100,000-rich South Bend, racked up 18 homicides in 2012. Gary, for example — with 22,000 fewer residents — tallied 43.
St. Joseph's unit has an 85 to 95 percent solve rate, Higgins said. Meanwhile, HIDTA is expediting ballistics evidence in 20 unsolved homicides in Gary this year. The city saw its 32nd homicide of 2013 late Friday, when a 23-year-old died of a gunshot wound to the back.
St. Joseph County's unit has 11 members from three departments. Gary will have 12 detectives working homicides when a Lake County detective gives ad hoc help next week.
Higgins said it can be a tricky "political hurdle" to get buy-in for a model like theirs.
"It's difficult in these times, when officer resources are dear, to convince people to get together," he said.
"With all the jurisdictions, there are often a lot of dynamics in play," Coulson said. "That's not to say they don't play well. But sometimes one city or town's priority isn't that of the next."
Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller agreed, saying, "I think some of the smaller communities might be harder to draw in the mix than the larger ones because they won't get the same benefit that the large cities will receive."
But Miller — whose city has tallied three homicides this year — called it a "great idea in theory," commending agencies for acknowledging "criminals work across borders."