Cops' Charges Dent Ind. City's Image

GARY, Ind. (AP) -- Veteran officer Thomas Houston didn't mince words when he took over as police chief in this violence-plagued city, promising to "implode" the department and make big changes, even if it went against public sentiment.

"I'm popular now," he said last May. "I will trade that for respect."

Less than a year later, Houston is out of a job. He and his top two deputies face federal civil rights charges accusing them of roughing up four people Houston suspected of breaking into his house last June.

Yet in this gritty Rust Belt city, corruption and a reputation as the nation's murder capital are so entrenched that allegations laid out in March 5 indictments don't even seem like a crime to some.

"Whether you're a police officer or not, whether you are on duty or not, if somebody breaks into your house and you find out who did it, you're going to want to get that person who did it," resident Kimberly Martin, 27, said last week.

"You have to figure if you break into the police chief's house, just reality, something might happen," agreed James Freeney, who has lived in Gary for five years. "You might have a long trip to the police station."

Clearly, the idea that the city's three highest-ranking officers, without a warrant, may have stormed a home on a personal vendetta doesn't bother at least some of the people they're supposed to be protecting. That kind of resignation signals a dangerously bleak mind-set, said Tom Stucky, a criminal law professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

"Typically what that means is that people are so frustrated that nothing is changing or can be changed and are giving up," he said. "If trust in the government is that low or trust in the police department is that low, you're going to see lots of other problems going along with that."

Prosecutors contend Houston, Deputy Chief Thomas Branson and Sgt. Thomas Decanter barged into the home after finding the chief's house had been ransacked and a gun stolen. Houston allegedly assaulted two of the four occupants, including a pregnant woman who claims he punched her in the stomach. Branson and Decanter are accused of striking a third suspect in the arm with a piece of wood.

All four were jailed for three days, but no charges were filed.

Houston and his officers deny abusing anyone. Mayor Rudy Clay says he believes his top cops, none of whom has a disciplinary record. He has reassigned Branson and Decanter to the homicide division focusing on cold cases pending the outcome of their trials, scheduled for May 12. Houston, 65, has retired.

Local radio host Ron Muhammad said the indictments have outraged some callers, but not all, in this city about 25 miles outside Chicago, where the jobs and the population declined with the fall of the steel industry.

Founded by U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert H. Gary in 1906, the city once was touted for its innovative schools and gained fame for its mention in the musical "The Music Man" and for its homegrown Motown stars, The Jackson Five. Over the past 25 years, however, Gary has become better known for corruption and violence.

The Census Bureau estimates for 2006 put Gary's population at nearly 98,000, down from about 175,000 in 1970, when the steel industry was in its heyday.

Gary had the nation's highest per capita homicide rate in 1984, 1993 and 1995, when a record 132 murders occurred. There were 71 murders last year, the most since 2001.

Clay insists the city isn't dangerous.

"The image of Gary, the perception, has never really been the reality," he said. "Gary has more God-fearing people than any city its size in America."

Those people have had a hard time getting honest leadership lately. Since 2002, several city officials have been caught up in scandals, including a city clerk who was a former congresswoman, the former chairman of the local Republican Party, a deputy mayor and the top political adviser to former Mayor Scott King.

Houston, a 42-year veteran, was under fire even before his indictment. Protesters called for his resignation in September after police left a car crash without finding two teenagers they were told had been in the crash. Hours later, the father of one of the missing teenagers found their bodies in underbrush not far from the road.

The indictments against the police brass is another blow to the image of a city where people can barely remember the brighter times.

"Even with complete exoneration," said King, the former mayor who is now Branson's attorney, "there's going to be a stain."

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