In recent years, Baton Rouge residents have shown time and again they are willing to pony up extra money to feel safer, taxing themselves to pay for additional police patrols.
This Dec. 6, voters in four more neighborhoods will decide whether to follow the trend, creating their own crime prevention districts to mandate annual parcel fees that are used to pay for the enhanced police presence. If approved, there would be a total of 19 of these districts in Baton Rouge, almost doubling the number of active districts in the parish since 2012.
Proponents see crime prevention districts as an opportunity to take control of their neighborhoods, ensuring they get the level of police protection they want. Opponents counter the districts shouldn’t be necessary if law enforcement is doing its job.
The four crime prevention districts up on the December ballot are for subdivisions scattered around the city. Goodwood Homesites and Villa del Rey subdivisions are on opposite sides of Cortana Mall. University Acres is a neighborhood not far from LSU and the Tara subdivision is off Old Hammond Highway.
The fees range from lows of $100 per household at Tara or $150 for the first year at Villa del Rey and Goodwood Homesites, to $365 in University Acres. Voters would be signing up for multiple years, from five years for Goodwood to 15 years at University Acres, along with agreeing to possible increases.
In the first year, the fees are expected to raise about $56,000 at Tara and Goodwood to $78,000 at University Acres and $118,000 for Villa del Rey.
Suzanne Fiske, Tara Civic Association president, said crime isn’t a major problem in the neighborhood and the district — which like all these districts was initially authorized by the Legislature — is aimed at keeping it that way.
“It would be nice if there were enough law enforcement officers to cover the need,” Fiske said, adding that Tara residents understand that there’s a cost associated with adding police patrols. “Increased police protection and other aspects which the crime prevention and improvement districts offer are a very good deterrent to criminal activity.”
The fees collected in the districts also can be used to pay for physical improvements around the neighborhood, such as lighting, cameras and signs.
Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, a staunch opponent of crime prevention districts, said the districts are tantamount to double taxation.
“If you pay your taxes you should get adequate crime protection,” Heck said. “I absolutely understand why you would want them — we all want to be safe. But that’s a failure of the government.”
He also took issue with the fact that wealthier neighborhoods are able to buy a level of safety that may not be available to lower-income residents.
When the U.S. Department of Justice looked at the New Orleans Police Department in 2011, the federal agency raised similar critiques of the prevalent private patrols in that city for much of the same reasons. Federal investigators wrote in a report, “While any community that wants extra security certainly has a right to pay for it, it raises troubling legal and ethical questions when that extra security might otherwise have been focused on parts of the city most in need of police assistance.”
Heck argued if residents feel inadequately protected by law enforcement, then the government should tax everyone equally so the whole city or parish is better served.
Myles Reed, Villa del Rey civic association president, said residents in his neighborhood were partly motivated to seek a district because of all the other crime prevention districts popping up across the parish.
“Around us there are three or four other neighborhoods with crime prevention districts,” he said. “We know if crime leaves there, it could come here.”
He also called it a strategy of being proactive, adding that the subdivision doesn’t currently have a major crime problem.
“We just want to make sure the neighborhood is kept safe and continues to be a vibrant place to raise a family,” Reed said.
Concord Estates was East Baton Rouge Parish’s first active crime prevention district, approved by voters in 2004, and started off small by collecting just about $7,150 for off-duty police protection. This year, the 15 crime protection districts are expected to generate $1.4 million for extra neighborhood safety initiatives.
By comparison, the Baton Rouge Police budget for the city of Baton Rouge is $87 million.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said he won’t take issue with the will of voters and recognizes that neighborhoods are looking for round-the-clock patrols that his department can’t realistically provide for every subdivision in the city.
“With as many neighborhoods as I have in the city, it’s almost impossible for me to do it as a department,” he said.
The neighborhoods independently contract with off-duty police officers, and currently Dabadie said his officers want to work the extra hours, so there isn’t a strain on his department.
Asked if the neighborhoods with crime prevention districts are safer, Dabadie responded: “I don’t want to say that, but I guess at the time the officer is there (patrolling), yes.”