Some fear homicide drop in EBR may be temporary

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Last year, East Baton Rouge had a 20 percent drop in the number of homicides. Yet, the homicide rate stubbornly remains more than four times the national average, with social ills such as poverty and unemployment still plaguing the inner city.

With an infusion of federal dollars in late 2012, city- parish officials began attacking the crime problem.

The results were impressive: 66 homicides in the parish in 2013, down from 83 in 2012 and a five-year average of nearly 83 since 2008, marking the lowest number of homicides parishwide in nearly a decade.

But the homicide rate, especially in Baton Rouge, remains high. The city’s 2013 rate was 21 homicides per 100,000 population, well above the national average of 4.8 per 100,000.

And some in the community are wondering if now is the time to give the same attention to the social ills underlying the crime epidemic as officials have given in the past year to those at risk of committing crimes.

“Unless we’re vigilant and start working on some preventative measures, it’s going to go back up,” said the Rev. Lee T. Wesley, pastor at the Community Bible Baptist Church on Monte Sano Avenue.

Law enforcement officials have repeatedly cited the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, or BRAVE, Project as the driving force of the community policing strategy that led to the overall decline of homicides as well as the drastic drop of gang-related shootings, from about 58 percent of the homicides from 2010 to early 2012 to fewer than a handful in 2013, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III has said.

Statistics released by Baton Rouge police in October for the first half of 2013 show a nearly 25 percent decrease in violent crime from the first half of 2012. Moore said unofficial data for the year show violent crime decreased throughout the parish by about 20 percent.

But for lasting change, advocates such as Wesley say the community needs to address the root causes of crime, not just crime itself.

“It’s a culture that has created this environment, and cultures are changed very slow,” said the Rev. Donald Butler, pastor of the New Beginning Baptist Church in the Glen Oaks area. “The homicides are symptoms, truancy are symptoms, but the cause of young men committing homicides in my mind have to do with a family that is not functional.”

There is counseling available — Wesley said the Greater Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge offers family, juvenile and marital counseling to all those who request it — but too many people don’t know about the available services.

BRAVE offers social services such as counseling and after-school programs in the 70805 and 70802 ZIP code areas, but only to members of the more than 40 street gangs whose leaders were invited to the BRAVE call-in sessions.

Call-ins are an integral part of Operation Ceasefire, the community policing program that BRAVE is modeled after. During the biannual sessions, law enforcement officers and community leaders meet with reputed violent offenders.

Others who don’t quality for those BRAVE services are referred to other agencies, said Mark Dumaine, a prosecutor who serves as Moore’s chief administrative officer.

“Baton Rouge is a resource-rich town and we have services that are going unutilized and so for the most part, BRAVE is able to assist (someone) by plugging them into other services such as services at the Family and Youth Service Center,” Dumaine said.

Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a gang leader-turned-activist who talks to at-risk youth as part of his Stop the Killing organization, said a continued effort to bring services to the inner city is needed to break the cycle of violence.

“I think that as a community, we focus on the violence — the violence of senseless killings — but we don’t look at the intimate level of violence, which is the violent speech,” he said.

“When you have a parent who continues to tell a child that he’s not going to be anything, that he’s just going to be like the no-good man that they had him for or just like your no-good momma,” Reed said, “those parents have failed as parents.”

Ed Shihadeh, an LSU criminologist who collects and analyzes data for BRAVE, said the first step is to take care of the crime, and then address the social ills.

“If you want to cure those social problems and deal with poverty and despair, first bring the crime rate down, then you can deal with those problems,” he said.

Law enforcement officials have repeatedly cited BRAVE as the main, if not sole, reason for the homicide decrease, but George Capowich, an assistant professor of sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans who specializes in crime and society, said the decrease could signal that the nearly decade-long crime epidemic in the city may be slowly coming to a close, and not just because of BRAVE.

“Does it (BRAVE) completely explain the dramatic drop? I think that’s unlikely,” Capowich said.

He stressed that he does not have access to the data and could not definitively pinpoint the leading causes for the decrease, but factors like population shifts, people getting older and growing out of the criminal lifestyle, and people getting new responsibilities have been shown in past research to reduce crime rates.

Other research has shown that when drug dealers’ markets are stable and they are not concerned about competition from other drug dealers, violence decreases, even if only temporarily, Capowich said.

That is a factor, he said, if the BRAVE call-ins are successfully leading juvenile offenders out of gangs, leaving fewer dealers on the streets.

But not all of the slayings were gang-related.

Last year, three people in East Baton Rouge were killed in murder-suicides, three young children died from blunt-force traumatic injuries and at least four people were killed by family members.

Other homicides included a woman stabbed to death allegedly by a stalker, a sole witness to a homicide who was beaten to death in an unrelated killing, and a woman who received a fatal dose of heroin from a boyfriend.

A number of people were fatally shot through a window in a car or in their own home: on Jan. 10, a Baton Rouge woman was shot through a window in her home; on Feb. 27, a man was shot through a window in his Hyundai Santa Fe; and on Aug. 10, a father was shot through a bedroom window in his apartment while sleeping in a bed with his 6-year-old son. Police do not have any leads in those homicides.

Still, more than half of the homicides in the city occurred in two areas: the 70805 ZIP code area, long recognized as the city’s most-violent, and the bordering 70802 area, the city’s second most-violent.

Those two areas make up just 19 of the city’s 75 square miles but annually account for nearly half of its serious and violent crime, a statement that rang true in 2013 with 27 of the city’s 49 homicides occurring within those borders.

The 70802 area had a drastic reduction in homicides: 10 in 2013, down from 23 the year before.

In the 70805 area, however, homicides increased: 17 in 2013, from 14 the year before. That increase was logged despite BRAVE’s focus on that area.

“We always knew that it is the historically most challenged area in Baton Rouge and that’s why the grant was focused on 70805, and remember this grant is focused on gun violence, in particular in young kids,” Moore said. “When you have that increased presence there, you would think that the murders would have at least been the same or a little bit less, but it’s really hard to explain.”