Crime soars in Baton Rouge’s Tigerland area; bar owners, landlords struggling to keep peace

Over the past year, Tigerland, the LSU bar hangout named for the school’s wild mascot and the surrounding area, has become a crime hot spot in the eyes of law enforcement.

The apparent stabbing of LSU tight end Dillon Gordon on Tuesday morning at Reggie’s Bar — a cornerstone of the Tigerland strip — is the latest in a string of incidents last year, including a man allegedly pointing a loaded gun at customers outside a bar, an apparent parking lot rape and a report of shots fired in the air just outside one of the taverns.

In June, Trey Lealaimatafao was kicked off LSU’s football team after he was accused of digging through an unconscious man’s pockets and punching a woman in Tigerland’s main, sprawling parking lot.

Crime jumped 25 percent from 2014 to 2015 in the Tigerland area, according to Baton Rouge police statistics provided by the Crime Strategies Unit, a data analysis effort spearheaded by East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III.

That’s spurred a coalition of LSU and local law enforcement officials, along with bar and property owners, to work on stemming the violence in Tigerland, roughly defined as the triangle south of the LSU golf course stretching to Brightside and Nicholson drives.

“Nine years in the hood and the projects, I don’t see worse than this area,” said Amjad Shalabi, who said he was shocked by Tigerland’s crime after moving from New Orleans seven months ago to manage Tiger Brothers Food Mart, a convenience store across the street from the main bar cluster.

“I thought I would be dealing with elegant people,” he said of taking over a shop in a college area.

Batteries in Tigerland rose from 95 in 2014 to 119 in 2015, and firearm incidents more than doubled from 14 in 2014 to 30 in 2015, according to the CSU’s numbers. Burglaries climbed, too, from 107 in 2014 to 111 in 2015. The data include a small number of events just outside the Tigerland triangle.

“I just see it and I’m worried there,” said Moore, about Tigerland’s crime numbers. Spurred by Lealaimatafao’s arrest in June, Moore said he’s helped organize meetings over the past six months — with one as recent as last week — with LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., as well as representatives from LSU police, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, and property and bar owners about how to prevent the violence.

Some of the solutions include increasing police presence and installing more lights, surveillance cameras and license plate readers near Tigerland’s bars, he said.

But some bar owners and others draw a distinction between the LSU scene at the taverns and the surrounding residential zone bearing the Tigerland name. Once inhabited by LSU students, the area of mostly two-story apartment buildings and modest courtyards is now home to a more mixed crowd, said Reggie’s Bar owner Darin Adams.

“A lot of undesirables,” as Adams put it, now inhabit Tigerland, bringing with them “a lot of crime.”

Adams declined to speak about Tuesday morning’s incident. But he said he’s working with the team of law enforcement and other stakeholders to end the disturbances.

“It’s the people that don’t get into the bars that are causing the problems,” he said Tuesday inside his cavernous saloon, which sports decor like animal heads and a Confederate flag.

One of the methods he uses to deter crime, he said, is enforcing a dress code outlawing hoodies, among other apparel — a practice that’s drawn criticism by some patrons who say the rules send a message that black people aren’t welcome. In November, LSU’s student newspaper The Daily Reveille reported Reggie’s also disallows “overly baggy clothing,” visible tattoos, plain T-shirts and all-white tennis shoes.

Adams refuted claims the bar is discriminatory, calling the “Reggie’s is racist” tack “a typical response” to his policies, which he compared to a bank’s dress code. “The only card they have to play is the race card,” he said of his critics.

Employees at Reggie’s and at least one other bar, Fred’s in Tigerland, next door, say they reserve the right to check customer’s LSU identification cards.

Fred’s part-owner and manager Jason Nay said making sure at least one person in a group is a current or former LSU student on crowded non-game nights is a way to ensure the bar is catering to its college clientele.

Nay said he’s been grateful that Baton Rouge police have recently been stationed outside the Tigerland bars on busy nights, primarily Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which he said provides a noticeable deterrent effect.

“There were a couple nights where I would’ve been worried if they hadn’t been there,” he said, though Fred’s has managed to avoid crime such as break-ins. Most of the violence takes place in the vast parking lot, where anyone can meander in and out, he said.

“We only have a fight here every three to four months,” he said.

John Bugea, a real estate professional who owns a four-plex on Alvin Dark Avenue in Tigerland, said he’s noticed a demographic shift in the area since he became a landlord there in 2007. As LSU students gravitated toward new residential developments nearby, Tigerland fell out of demand, creating a void that’s allowed, in part, “a bad element,” he said.

Whereas nearly 10 years ago most of his tenants were LSU students, now, he says, only about one in four are associated with the school.

“It doesn’t help (me) get a higher-quality tenant, when not a lot of tenants want to live there because there’s crime happening nearby,” he said.

As a result, he said, “rents have been consistent, but negative to market. … (We) haven’t seen the rental increases that the rest of Baton Rouge has seen.”

One resident, who identified himself only as Dre, said he moved to Tigerland about two years ago and stays away from the college bars. “We watch out for each other over here,” motioning to his small apartment complex, where he was washing a Cadillac on Tuesday. “I don’t know what goes on at the bar.”

Dabadie cautioned against drawing a direct link between the demographic shift in Tigerland and increased crime.

“You’re gonna have a lot of people there that are not students. It doesn’t mean they’re committing crimes. That just means that’s where they live. So I wouldn’t blame it on that,” he said. “We’ve always had issues with Tigerland, even when it was only populated by students.”

Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 6, 2016, to correct the name of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

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