For BR gangs, an ultimatum and off-ramp from violence

On a chilly night last month, about two dozen reputed gang members piled into the 19th Judicial District Courthouse downtown for an after-hours meeting with law enforcement and community leaders. It was an unusual rendezvous that was months in the making.

The Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination team arranged the invitation-only forum to issue an ultimatum to the street gangs whose score-settling shootings have fueled the city’s murder rate.

The gang members — some behind bars awaiting trial, others leveraged by the terms of their probation — were urged to repeat the message far and wide: Killing will not be tolerated, and any challengers will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

“Tonight is about making sure you understand that things have changed,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said after an opening prayer, his words cutting through a palpable tension.

In the gallery of the 10th-floor courtroom, dreadlocked men leafed through copies of their own rap sheets, provided in an informational packet that included a map of federal prisons and an overview of penalties they might face upon committing another crime. Facial expressions ranged from impassive to defiant.

Some stared at the floor, as if marooned in after-school detention. Others watched silently as the names, mug shots and prison sentences of convicted gang affiliates splashed across screens.

“From now on, we’re going to deliver consequences to every member of the group that puts the next body on the ground,” Moore continued, using the term he prefers over “gang” and the sophistication it invokes. “Today is a new day in Baton Rouge.”

So began the Capital City’s second notification call-in, a carefully scripted yet dramatic session designed to convince local youth that the inevitable cost of crime outweighs the benefits. Gang members seeking an off-ramp from their felonious lifestyles were proffered a host of services, from job training to counseling. A group of pastors sought to discredit the street creed of retaliation.

“Disrespect does not require violence,” the Rev. Leo Cyrus said. “We need you to live. We need you to stay out of prison.”

Officials expect only a fraction of the participants to accept their help, but said the most critical function of the meeting was for word to spread quickly that the rules were being rewritten, the status quo upended. After the first call-in session this spring, Moore said, some gang members were offended their names had been left off the invitation list, a sign the streets had been talking.

“You’re really not talking to the people in the chairs in the room,” said David M. Kennedy, the criminologist whose vaunted group-violence reduction strategy has been implemented around the country and serves as the model for BRAVE. “You’re talking to their groups. ‘Take what you’re hearing today back to the guys you run with.’”

Moore regards the call-in as the centerpiece of BRAVE, the expanding crime-fighting project that authorities have credited with stemming the city’s gun violence to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels.

East Baton Rouge Parish had recorded 62 criminal homicides this year as of Friday, according to unofficial statistics compiled by The Advocate, a 22.5 percent decrease from the 80 slayings seen through the same period in 2012. The parish has averaged about 85 homicides a year since 2006.

“We’re not going to stop all the murders,” Moore said in an interview, “but it appears that the gang killings are significantly down from last year.”

Only two homicides this year have been confirmed as gang killings, Moore said, though he added there “surely could be more.”

The BRAVE project, a federally funded, interagency initiative that has targeted Baton Rouge’s most bullet-riddled neighborhoods, is based on the premise that impressionable youth are less likely to commit further violence when their community loudly disapproves of it.

The call-in is geared toward a small contingent of criminals responsible for an outsize portion of the city’s bloodshed. Studies have increasingly pointed to the benefits of cities adopting such “focused deterrence strategies” that relate the stakes — swift and certain punishment — to local gangs in unequivocal terms.

“For many years, people have thought that if you engage in gun violence you must be sociopathic or you don’t have the ability to make rational decisions,” said Reygan E. Harmon, project manager of Operation Ceasefire in Oakland, Calif., a city that like Baton Rouge has battled rampant gang violence. “But what research has actually shown is that many of the young men actually are rational and, when provided with real clear information about what their risks are and what the community standards are, they will make rational decisions.”

If the Nov. 13 call-in resembled a stern lecture, it also had the feel of a revival at times. The sessions are something of a “come to Jesus meeting,” in which teens also hear from the victims of senseless crimes.

“When you get killed on the street, I’m going to put your face on this book and I’m going to give it to your parents,” Renee Pete, whose son was fatally shot in 2007, told a suddenly rapt audience. Pete creates special books — more than 200 so far — for families likes hers that are riven by violence.

“You say ‘I’ve got to die one day,’ but you don’t think about who you’re leaving behind,” she said.

Ted Heinrich, a federal prosecutor in Boston who was a leader in that city’s trailblazing Operation Ceasefire intervention, said that call-ins are “enormously effective,” in large part because of what occurs in the months leading up to them.

Grant dollars have enabled LSU researchers to identify and track local gangs, and law enforcement officials say they know more than ever before about their interactions and rivalries. But BRAVE officials also are assembling a network of alliances.

“You get that data, but the other thing you get is the partnership — law enforcement, social services and community folks,” Heinrich said. “We have a lot of common goals, and we can pull together in certain ways to help us achieve those goals.”

A critical component of the Operation Ceasefire model calls for immediate, heavy-handed consequences when a gang that has been targeted is linked to a killing. Law enforcement officials agree to pull every legal “lever” at their disposal, including executing outstanding warrants, tightening probation enforcement and bringing in the federal government to prosecute habitual offenders and felons caught in possession of a firearm.

“I want you to know that your time will not be spent in East Baton Rouge Parish if you are convicted,” Walt Green, the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, told call-in attendees last month. “You could be in California or Minnesota. Your family may not ever get to visit you; if they do it will not be all of them.”

One BRAVE crackdown occurred this summer after the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Honduran man in Gardere.

The alleged triggerman, 18-year-old Trevor Georgetown, had attended the April call-in along with other members of the Block Boyz street gang.

When Georgetown was implicated in the case, local, state and federal authorities arrested 11 of his associates on counts such as burglary and drug distribution.

Several other young men invited to the first call-in have since been arrested, Moore said, but only Georgetown has been booked with murder.

“The ones that are late teens, early 20s are the hardest ones to get because they think they know more than anybody,” said Lisa Jayne, the Operation Ceasefire coordinator in Fayetteville, N.C., a city that has held call-ins for several years. “It all comes down to choice.”