Murder rate down sharply in East Baton Rouge Parish

This time a year ago, as the oppressive summer heat began to give way to the promise of fall, the body count was mounting and East Baton Rouge Parish seemed fated for a record-setting year in the murder column.

At the end of a particularly violent summer, the Capital City’s crime rate was alarming the public, raising concerns among prospective businesses and attracting the wrong kind of national media attention. A billboard appeared along Interstate 12 saying the city’s murder rate was higher than Chicago’s.

A year later, people are still being murdered in East Baton Rouge Parish, but in much smaller numbers.

Last year, the parish had seen 70 homicides through the end of August. After the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old last week, the unofficial tally for 2013 stood at 43 slayings, according to figures compiled by The Advocate. That’s a drop of about 39 percent compared to the number of killings at the same point in 2012.

Thirty-four of the slayings were in the city; nine were outside the city limits. This year’s total does not include the case of a 72-year-old woman killed in a mysterious house fire in late July, which authorities said could be deemed a homicide at the conclusion of an arson investigation.

“It’s absolutely huge,” Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist at LSU, said of the decline in homicides.

Shihadeh attributed the drop to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project, a data-driven crime fighting initiative that has focused on the city’s gangs and most violent neighborhoods. “It was the collective decision to work together,” he said. “It’s a lot of smart policing.”

While a small fraction of the population is affected by it, a city’s murder rate is widely considered a good indicator of violent crime, as almost all homicides are known to police. If the current pace continues, the parish could be headed for its lowest homicide total since 2005. The parish had 83 homicides in 2012 and has averaged about 85 homicides a year since 2006.

The numbers compiled by The Advocate do not include homicides the authorities have classified as negligent or justifiable.

Lt. Don Kelly, a Baton Rouge police spokesman, said the department’s inhouse tracking indicates the decline in homicides “appears to be continuing and even growing compared to last year.” He added, however, that authorities are “all very well aware that could quickly change.”

“When you look at the real long-term trends — like 10 or 20 years — they tell quite a different story than just focusing on a few months or even a year or two,” Kelly said. “People always tend to think things now are worse than they’ve ever been, but that’s simply not true.”

Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner, credited law enforcement efforts, but said local doctors and nurses also deserve recognition for the work they’re doing in emergency rooms. On Thursday, for instance, two people were shot in a heated argument but survived their injuries.

“We’ll go a whole weekend where several people get shot and no one dies,” Clark said. “People are shot up quite a bit and they survive because they’re brought to the hospital and the hospitals are saving them.”

After a violent January, in which nine people were killed, the parish saw a 25-day stretch without a single homicide. There was a similar span of 24 days between mid March and early April without a killing.

“I recall two particular murders where we would go to the scene and there’s eight homicide detectives there because all of their murders had been worked,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “You can really work a case with that many detectives.”

Even as the killings have subsided, interviews showed that many residents believe crime remains out of control in Baton Rouge. The perception is fueled by high-profile crimes like last May’s savage beating of a man whose attacker allegedly told him he had stopped in “the wrong neighborhood” to get gas.

“The fear factor in the population is at least the same — no one feels any safer,” said Lane Grigsby, a politically active businessman and outspoken critic of local law enforcement’s efforts to stem crime. “The business community is only concerned with what appears to influence them in the here and now, and they consider Florida Boulevard the wall between Palestine and Israel.”

Mayor-President Kip Holden disputed that assertion, pointing to the city’s successful recruitment of new business.

“I’m watching a whole new trend take effect, and we’re being a lot more proactive than other cities,” Holden said. “Baton Rouge is not going to be labeled as a city that’s crime ridden.”

The billboard, meanwhile, remains as an ominous warning to motorists along Interstate 12. Its owner, Baton Rouge attorney Locke Meredith, said he decided to put it up about a year ago to raise awareness about the city’s crime woes.

The shooting that wounded two innocent teenage bystanders last year outside the Mall of Louisiana compelled him to get involved, he said. “I had been reading about (the crime),” he said, “but it hadn’t hit home the way that did.”

Meredith said his billboard still serves as a reminder of the challenges that lie ahead for Baton Rouge. He said he received a message this year about a woman who had been too scared to stop for gas in Baton Rouge after seeing the sign.

“One statistic in and of itself is not necessarily dispositive of the issue,” he said of the decline in the homicide rate this year. “I know that we didn’t get to this point overnight, and I would be very surprised if we went to an acceptable level — if there is such a thing — in a year.”

But a dramatic reduction in killings for this year is well within reach, said Shihadeh, the LSU criminologist.

Shihadeh has worked closely with the federally funded BRAVE initiative, which began in Baton Rouge last year. The program was modeled after the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire and employs a scientific approach to tracking and preventing violent crime.

The program’s premise is that crime can be reduced when law enforcement, citizens and social service providers engage gang members and, while offering alternatives to a life of crime, convey the message that violence won’t be tolerated. One such crackdown was seen this summer when authorities arrested nine suspected gang members after the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Honduran man in Gardere.

The alleged triggerman, Trevor Georgetown, a known member of The Block Boyz gang, had attended a “call-in” session in April with BRAVE leaders, where he and about 40 other gang members were warned of the potential consequences of violence.

As the initiative has become more sophisticated, Shihadeh said BRAVE researchers are on the verge of working “in lock step” with the police. Ideally, he said, researchers will be able to provide officers with real-time data about which areas they should focus on in their daily patrols.

“It’s not the Rambo model where one guy is the leader,” Shihadeh said. “It’s the Apollo 13 model where a bunch of people who are just smart get together and work on the problem and they solve it.”