Crime districts’ effectiveness debated

During the past 15 years, the Louisiana Legislature created at least 50 crime prevention districts around the state, including 18 in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Voters in 40 of those districts around the state have approved levying a mandatory $50 to $500 annual “parcel fee,” which is collected at the same time as property taxes. Nearly all of the money generated is going to crime prevention, such as, hiring extra patrols, installing cameras, improving lighting and attacking blighted property.

Collections totaled more than $5.5 million last year from 40 districts, including 10 in East Baton Rouge Parish. Homeowners in other neighborhoods will start paying and others vote on whether to impose parcel fees on themselves in 2014.

“It’s a neighborhood association on steroids,” said Ed Shihadeh, an LSU sociologist.

As a legal entity of state government, each crime district is subject to public meetings, open records, budget and audit requirements. The districts must file annual financial reports with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. Most appear to be complying.

Each member of each crime district board is required to file a personal financial disclosure with the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Are all those board members filing the required disclosures?

It’s hard to say. The Ethics Board is getting reports, said Kathleen Allen, administrator for the ethics agency, but the state doesn’t know the identity of all the board members.

It’s also difficult to determine how much of an impact the districts have on preventing crime. Statistics are gathered by law enforcement but the locations of crimes do not generally coincide with the boundaries of specific crime districts. Instead they are gathered by police precinct or by some other broad geographical area.

Crime prevention district leaders still point to successes.

Ed Campanella, of Baton Rouge’s Shenandoah Estates district, said he feels the presence of off-duty sheriffs deputies patrolling the neighborhood makes a difference.

“A deputy patrolling saw a guy in a pick-up truck with TVs in the back of it. It turned out he had committed two or three burglaries within the neighborhood,” Campanella said.

“With the four hours we have every day you are not going to catch everybody. It’s all about being preventative and creating a deterrent.”

The district lines of Shenandoah Estates coincide with the boundaries the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office uses to make its crime reports.

On the surface, the statistics show little difference because numbers on a wide range of crimes are collected. But serious crimes have declined from before the district was established in 2010.

For instance, in 2010, the sheriff counted 81 burglaries and two years later, the number fell to 58. The number of vehicle burglaries dropped from 92 to 78 during the same time period, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.

“As a private citizen, when the concept first came out, and as a law enforcement officer, I questioned why should people have to pay more,” East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said.

“But the harsh reality is we will never have enough people to be where we want to be at times we need to be. This is a tool, a very beneficial tool when used correctly.”

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said the districts provide a service for a neighborhood that wants added security. “Unfortunately we are limited. We have to spread all over the city,” he said.

In Wedgewood Crime Prevention District — off O’Neal Lane in Baton Rouge — Georgette Harris, a longtime board member of one of Baton Rouge’s earliest districts, said the fact that would-be intruders know that there are police patrols “makes them less apt to make this their playground.”

A sheriff’s department report shows one burglary and three cases of theft in the 200-plus home neighborhood last year.

In the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, personal and property crimes totaled 626 in its first year of existence, according to New Orleans Police Sgt. Joseph Bouvier, the Lakeview neighborhood supervisor. Last year, there were 275 total.

Before the district was established, crimes topped 900.

“It’s hard to keep crime down. But compared to the rest of New Orleans, Lakeview is Mayberry,” said longtime Lakeview resident and former state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, whose legislation created the district in the late 1990s. Lakeview was the first in the state and Bruneau’s legislation is the general model that has been used to create crime districts.

“It’s a plus for everyone,” said Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Col. John Fortunato. “There are added security patrols in areas of the parish where there would be one or two cars.”

The way some of the districts were created has caused headaches for city-parish finance officials in East Baton Rouge.

The city-parish has oversight authority of the seven earliest neighborhood crime prevention districts, including budget approval on several of them, said city-parish finance director Marsha Hanlon.

Funds flowed through city-parish coffers, requiring the city-parish sometimes to pay bills for districts from their allocated monies, she said.

The city-parish severed that legal relationship as newer districts formed.

“If you want to be a district you have to be on your own, not jeopardize my financial statement for your homeowners groups,” Hanlon said.

Proponents of the districts also say the crime districts help keep property values up.

“What drives property values first and foremost in my opinion is safety and security in and around your home,” said Gary Littlefield, a leader in one of Baton Rouge’s newest entities — Broadmoor Crime Prevention District.

“We felt like 27 cents a day is going to help people’s property value.”