East Baton Rouge Parish logged its first homicide this year when Michael Taylor Sr. was beaten with a tire iron during a family brawl on New Year’s Day and died a week later.
Over the next several months, eight teens were shot to death, including three during a birthday party in Baker in late March.
And in May, an elderly man known as a fatherly figure in LSU’s athletic community was bludgeoned to death inside his home near Tigerland. Police found him two days later buried in a backyard tomato garden.
Halfway through this year, East Baton Rouge Parish has tallied at least 35 homicides. The figure, which was compiled by The Advocate and excludes negligent and justifiable homicides plus two deaths still under review by authorities, stands as a reminder of the pervasive violence in Louisiana’s capital city, for years considered more deadly per capita than most other cities in the nation.
But with the midway total also comes, at least for some, a sigh of relief. After a 20 percent drop in homicides between 2012 and 2013, one looming question has been whether the downturn would last.
So far, it has.
“We wouldn’t be here without BRAVE,” said Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist at LSU, referring to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project. “But BRAVE only looks at gangs. We need to build on the success of BRAVE and start looking at nongang violence.”
Discussions about parishwide homicides over the last two years often begin and end with BRAVE. The project, initiated in the fall of 2012, involves cooperation between social service programs, law enforcement and faith-based organizations aimed at reducing gang-related youth violence. It’s based on Operation Ceasefire, a nationally renowned program used in cities from Los Angeles to Boston to New Orleans targeting youth violence stirred up by gangs or smaller, less-organized youthful groups.
In 2012, East Baton Rouge Parish recorded 83 homicides, which was on par with killings seen here for several years prior to that. Then, in 2013, during the first full year of BRAVE, the number dropped to 66, according to The Advocate’s figures.
Researchers and city-parish officials have said the decline was no coincidence. And the parish is on pace to record a similar number of homicides this year.
“If we hold our own this second year, we’re good,” said Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish’s district attorney and one of the leaders and most vocal proponents of BRAVE. “I’m pleased where we are.”
Moore noted that summers can be more violent than other seasons, but it’s still too early to make any declarations. He also said there remains much laboring to be done in the effort to reduce homicides even further.
Among this year’s killings were five beating victims, one stabbing victim and a Baton Rouge man who died of a heroin overdose.
Of the 13 fatal heroin overdoses this year, according to the most recent figures available from the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, the death of Guy Koontz Jr. in February is the only one that has resulted in a murder arrest, reflecting a recent trend by authorities to try to pin dealers and distributors of the drug with murder under a rarely used provision of Louisiana law.
Also among the 35 homicides, which only involved 32 incidents because of the triple slaying in Baker and a double killing in Gardere in May, was that of a casino security guard nicknamed “Teddybear” who was killed minutes after leaving his parents’ home in January in a car crash caused by a vehicle fleeing police.
In all, there have been arrests in about half the parishwide cases included in The Advocate’s figures — meaning killers remain on the loose in the other half.
“Working a homicide is a long, drawn-out process,” said Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, a Baton Rouge police spokeswoman.
The department has cleared 14 of the 28 homicides that occurred in the city. Of course, Godawa said, the department wishes the clearance rate was higher.
But because most of the unsolved cases are more recent, detectives haven’t had as long to work them.
One person who recognizes the need for time to complete daunting projects is Janet Simmons, president and CEO of HOPE Ministries on Winbourne Avenue, a nonprofit that receives grant money through BRAVE and works to stabilize families and prevent homelessness.
“We’re having a lot of positive outcomes with the people we’re working with,” Simmons said.
The nonprofit operates in the heart of an area of Baton Rouge — the 70805 ZIP code — that historically sees more killings than any other, which is why that area was chosen as the focus of BRAVE. Although there have been only five homicides there this year, second in the parish to the 11 that occurred in its southern neighbor, the 70802 ZIP code, Simmons said most residents don’t feel any safer.
“This community still feels like they’re in danger,” Simmons said, “and they still feel like there hasn’t really been much change.”
The 70805 ZIP code encompasses many of Baton Rouge’s poorest neighborhoods, ranging from Ghost Town to Brookstown. The ZIP code generally is bordered by the Mississippi River in the west, Airline Highway to the north and east, and Choctaw Drive to the south.
However, stereotyping poverty as a stimulant to crime lumps the majority of the area’s residents — who aren’t violent — in with a much smaller percentage of notorious troublemakers, Simmons said.
Verna Jones, a criminologist at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, said the key to addressing youth violence begins during early childhood education. Violence in Jackson, a Southern capital with about 50,000 fewer people than Baton Rouge and a similar number of annual homicides, is “almost out of control,” Jones said.
She said officials there are working on new strategies to reduce deadly crime, but mostly “it’s just the same old soup that’s being reheated. Until you really do something to reach the young people, you’re going to continuously have this problem.”
She once saw a child throw a rock through a store window. When she asked him why he did it, “he said, ‘There ain’t nothing else to do.’ ”
In Baton Rouge, BRAVE is trying to fill social gaps in the lives of mostly troubled young men. But while the initial drop in homicides has been touted as a major BRAVE success, the goal now is to keep from losing ground.
“Violent crime has not gone down this year,” said Shihadeh, the LSU criminologist. “Now it’s time to rub our temples a little bit and say, ‘Where to from here?’ ”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.
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