BRAVE expansion to zero in on violent neighborhoods

The $1 million grant intended to expand the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project will focus crime-fighting efforts on four inner-city neighborhoods that remain an epicenter of violence in the Capital City.

The federal funding will aim to disrupt gang activity and reduce stubbornly high crime rates in the communities of Istrouma, Eden Park, Midtown and Greenville Extension, officials announced Monday.

“What we’re trying to do is literally suffocate out crime so that we can breathe oxygen back into these communities,” said Ed Shihadeh, a criminologist at LSU who coordinates the initiative’s research team.

The grant will be implemented over three years, broadening existing BRAVE efforts in the notoriously violent 70805 ZIP code to the adjacent 70802 ZIP code.

The areas share similar demographics, social characteristics and environmental conditions, and researchers have found that gang violence continually cycles between the two ZIP codes.

“These criminals don’t know any boundaries,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, who joined several law enforcement officials and community leaders at a news conference Monday.

The targeted neighborhoods, described in grant literature as the “heart of chronic crime concentration,” cover about 3.57 square miles and have a combined population of less than 14,000 residents.

This hotbed of robberies and shootings is bordered by Mohican Street to the north, Eaton Street and North Foster Street to the east, North Street to the south and Interstate 110 and Plank Road to the west.

The neighborhoods are described in grant documents as communities originally constructed for workers at nearby petrochemical plants.

They were largely abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s, the grant says, by “the migration of workers to more modern suburbs requiring travel by automobile.”

Implacable violence has gripped these communities and contributed to an upward trend in homicides in Baton Rouge beginning around 2003, according to the grant, which says the predominance of crime is attributable to a lack of social cohesion and “residential instability.”

The neighborhoods also have far higher poverty rates than other parts of Baton Rouge and the state as a whole.

“Left behind economically, these communities comprise the poorest, most distressed neighborhoods in Baton Rouge, characterized by blight, neglect and urban decay, and offer many residents little hope of breaking the bleak cycle of poverty,” grant documents state.

The 70805 and 70802 ZIP codes comprise just 19 of the city’s 75 square miles but account for nearly half of its serious and violent crime — much of which involves juveniles.

“The BRPD reports that juveniles arrested in the targeted area are generally multiple offenders and nearly 100 percent African American,” the grant says.

The grant money comes on top of a $1.5 million federal grant that kick-started BRAVE last year. The additional funding underscores the success of the program and the work ethic of those implementing it, said Walt Green, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana.

“We hear a lot of bad news from D.C. about furloughs and sequestration and dwindling dollars,” Green said, “but I’m very proud to be a Department of Justice employee just to know that the Department of Justice has seen fit to grant this money to expand the program.”

Modeled after the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire, BRAVE employs a scientific approach to tracking and preventing violent crime. Law enforcement, citizens and social service providers work together to identify gang members and offer them resources and alternatives to a life of crime.

A “call-in” session is scheduled for next month, during which authorities will issue a stern warning to gang members about the potential consequences of continued violence.

“We’re well on the way to reducing crime,” Mayor-President Kip Holden said.

The project is driven by data. Researchers at LSU have tracked gang interactions using social media and also developed “hot spot” maps that show concentrations of crime. These figures are used to help police direct resources more efficiently.

“This isn’t people sitting around a table guessing what’s going to work, but rather really digging deep down into data that are available across multiple agencies and multiple levels of analysis and using that to inform decision making,” said Matthew R. Lee, a professor of sociology and associate vice chancellor for research and economic development at LSU.

Local authorities have credited BRAVE with reducing homicides. East Baton Rouge Parish has seen about 50 homicides so far in 2013, according to unofficial figures compiled by The Advocate, which do not include homicides classified as negligent or justifiable. The parish had recorded 73 slayings at this point last year.

“Our program is going to go forward,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “It’s going to save more people, save more lives, and hopefully eventually save the city.”