Holden, Walker split on scope of problem in parish
“We have all these substations where police are, but that’s not where the problems are.” Gordon Mese
Editor’s note: Last in a series of stories on mayoral race issues.
The two frontrunner candidates for mayor-president have offered voters starkly different portraits of crime in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Mike Walker, a term-limited Republican councilman, says Baton Rouge is in a crime emergency, with families “living in homes with bars on their windows while criminals are outside running free.”
But incumbent Mayor-President Kip Holden, a Democrat, said the city wouldn’t be as successful as it has been in attracting businesses and tourists if it was anything like the crime-plagued, dangerous place Walker describes. He accused Walker of sensationalizing the issue for political gain.
Gordon Mese and Steve Myers, the two no-party candidates, both agree crime is a serious problem and offer alternative approaches to dealing with the problem.
As of Friday, the parish this year had logged 79 homicides — 63 of which happened within the Baton Rouge city limits, according to statistics compiled by The Advocate. The parish had a record-setting year for homicides in 2009 with 88, with 75 in the city limits.
While murders have been on the rise, city police statistics show the number of major crimes overall — such as rapes, robberies, burglaries, car thefts and assaults — have fluctuated since 2005. In 2011, there were 15,173 major crimes reported, up less than 1 percent from 2010.
After an uptick in 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, when 17,864 major crimes were reported, the number of major crimes fell in the city limits in each of the next two years. They rose in 2009 and dropped again in 2010.
The statistics compiled by Baton Rouge police only detail crimes committed inside the city limits. They do not include crimes committed in Baker, Central and Zachary, which have their own police departments, and in unincorporated areas of the parish, where crimes are investigated by the Sheriff’s Office. Some of those areas, such as Glen Oaks and the Gardere area, have been crime hot spots in recent years.
The Mayor’s Office controls only the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Walker has made crime fighting the cornerstone of his campaign. Holden is neglecting what should be the office’s top responsibility, Walker says.
“In the last eight years, the mayor has created a passive environment allowing small crimes to turn into the big ones,” Walker said. “Is there any wonder that we’re on a record-setting homicide pace?”
Walker blames Holden for the increase in homicides parishwide, from 59 in 2005 to 81 last year.
Early in his campaign, Walker released a nine-point plan to reduce crime, with increasing staffing in the Baton Rouge Police Department being his top priority.
Walker has criticized Holden for allowing the department to endure officer shortages, and promised to budget police academies every year to replenish the ranks.
He said his opponent does not make public safety a priority in the budget.
City police officials say they’re short about 70 officers, but a police academy under way will fill about half of those spots.
Holden funded this year’s police academy through a midyear appropriation of excess sales tax money. Holden also has promised the 2013 budget will fund another police academy.
Walker said Holden only put money in the budget for a police academy this year “after I got in the race and started putting pressure on him, saying we needed to have it.”
Holden points out that since he took office in 2005, he has funded police academies of 25 or more officers every year except 2010, when the down economy hurt city-parish revenues.
Walker’s crime reduction plan also focuses on cracking down on “smaller crimes.” He said he modeled his approach after former-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s use of the “broken window” philosophy that says punishing smaller crimes can prevent criminals from escalating to more serious offenses.
In his crime plan, Walker promises to fund the misdemeanor jail, which is only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, around the clock to address the 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants in the parish.
City court officials have estimated it would cost about $2.2 million annually to keep it open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The misdemeanor jail will help us reverse a culture of lawlessness and disdain for law that’s running rampant in our parish,” Walker said. “It may start out as a small crime, but then they don’t pay for it and they think they can get away with it.”
Walker notes that the misdemeanor warrants division, which is housed within the jail, also closes at 5 p.m. each day. That means officers can’t verify after hours if there are any outstanding warrants against a suspect that could lead to an individual’s arrest.
When officers pick up offenders, the officers check for outstanding warrants on their computers, but if a misdemeanor warrant pops up, it also has to be physically verified by calling the warrants division to ensure the warrant is still valid, according to city court policy.
Holden said targeting small-time offenders is a waste of resources.
“If you have a parking ticket, is that an indicator that you’re going to go out and commit a bank robbery sometime later?” Holden asked.
While traffic tickets make up more than half of the outstanding bench warrants in City Court, misdemeanors also include a broad range of offenses, including DWI, domestic violence, assault, battery, possession of marijuana and unlawful possession of firearm charges.
Holden said Walker’s nine-point plan is a one-dimensional approach to fighting crime and an overreach of power.
Part of Walker’s plan includes assigning more officers to the narcotics division and to street operations teams.
“If he wants to be police chief, he should have applied when I had an opening,” Holden said. “He’s assigning personnel? That’s going way beyond micromanaging.”
Holden disputed Walker’s claim that public safety hasn’t been a priority for his administration.
The Police Department’s budget has grown from $52 million in 2005 to $82 million this year, including the midyear budget supplement, according the city-parish budget. In Holden’s first term, he gave police a $4.85 million raise — which he said is the largest in the department’s history.
The department also has higher staffing now than it’s ever had, Holden said. When the new academy’s officers complete their training, the police department will have 667 officers. There were 608 officers when Holden took office in 2005.
Holden said he’s using a broad approach to fighting crime that includes law enforcement programs like Operation BRAVE, which targets violent crime, as well as job training opportunities for youths and calling on ministers and pastors to help reach families.
Holden said crime has “fluctuated” since he’s taken office, in part because of a bad economy. But he said Walker is sensationalizing the crime problem by falsely claiming the city-parish is in the midst of a crime emergency.
“He’s just coined the phrase because he’s a person utilizing one plank in this race to become mayor,” Holden said.
A city’s crime rate is a perennial issue in municipal elections, often used by challengers. Holden talked about the city-parish’s crime problems in terms that are similar to those used by Walker when he ran against then-incumbent Mayor-President Bobby Simpson,
For example, Holden was quoted in a March 2004 interview as saying he planned on “a government that puts more officers on the street, real community policing, and one that says to our families, ‘You don’t have to be intimidated by drug dealers or gangs; you don’t have to be barricaded in your homes; don’t have to hire private, off-duty officers.’ ”
Holden said in an interview this week that initiatives like Operation BRAVE and the Truancy Center, both of which took off this year, are key examples of community policing.
“When you lay out a plan that doesn’t mean that plan will happen tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve seen it evolve in time, but although it didn’t happen as fast as we’d like, now we’re definitely moving in that direction.”
Holden said some of the law enforcement initiatives were slowed because they had to rely on federal dollars to come in when the economy slowed.
Walker said he has always had a tough on crime stance as a council member, which included holding town hall meetings and participating in neighborhood sweeps, where different law enforcement agencies search for people with outstanding warrants and look for other violations.
“I didn’t just come up with this,” Walker said. “I’ve been known as a crime fighting person in my council district since I took office.”
While Holden has increased staffing and funding for the police, Walker said he has a “fundamental disagreement on whether we have added police officers where they are needed most, as we are chronically short of police officers on every shift throughout the city.”
Walker didn’t specify how many officers he would add, saying only that he “would look to the law enforcement professionals to determine how many officers we need and where our needs are greatest.”
Mese said the long-term solution to reducing crime in the parish lies with changing the city-parish blueprint for land use and development.
Throughout his campaign, Mese has said reforming the parish’s Unified Development Code is his chief priority because it touches all quality of life issues in the parish.
He cited his own business, the Garden District Nursery on Government Street, as an example. He said the business has been chronically burglarized through the decades because the street is desperately in need of redevelopment.
Changing Government Street from four lanes to three lanes could drastically lower crime, Mese said. The lost lane would be turned into sidewalks, bike paths, and new curbs, which encourage more residents to walk and bike to the various Government Street restaurants, stores and shops.
“That’s one of the greatest crime prevention methods in the world, eyeballs on the streets,” Mese said. “Criminals don’t want to be seen.”
Mese said law enforcement agencies need to “be creative” when exploring ways to tackle crime.
He pointed to the use of mobile command centers used during high-profile functions.
“We have all these substations where police are, but that’s not where the problems are,” Mese said. “If you have this big Winnebago, then get four or five of them. If you have a hot spot, then fire up the Winnebago and move it to the new hot spot.”
Myers said he would prioritize spending for public safety and reorganize the department.
He said more funding would be available for public safety if the city-parish concentrated on the “core missions of a local government” and stopped spending money on such things as social programs and economic development.
Myers also said the department should be reorganized to make the most of the funds it has. For example, he said non-emergency tasks like taking crash reports, burglary reports or directing traffic could be conducted by civilian police employees, freeing up more sworn officers to deal with more serious matters.
Myers, who frequently advocates for civil liberties and property rights, said he would work to remove “stupid laws that distract us from real crimes.”
“We wouldn’t have to spend resources on dumb things like red-light cameras, open-container laws and dogs pooping,” Myers said. “We don’t need all these small laws. We need to stop the murders.”
Myers said he believes the city-parish should consider consolidating the Sheriff’s Office, the Baton Rouge Police Department and the Constable’s Office. He said the duplication of services and lack of coordination among agencies could be causing inefficiencies in service.
For example, he said, the population of Louisville, Ky. is larger than East Baton Rouge Parish’s, but that city’s consolidated law enforcement spends less per capita than the combination of East Baton Rouge’s Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department combined. Louisville also enjoys lower levels of crime, he noted.
Consolidating law enforcement agencies is a concept that is frequently reviewed but has never been acted on.
The four candidates will face off in the Nov. 6 primary.