As the sun set on Friday night, church leaders and Glen Oaks West neighbors steadily marched down the middle of Sumrall Drive beneath the glow of new street lights that lined the roadway.
But the march, co-organized by the Rev. Donald Hunter of New Beginning Baptist Church, was also a show of solidarity as crime continued to pose a problem for residents of Glen Oaks West and Zion City, where the church is located.
“We want to get out from behind the four walls of our churches and let the community see the church put our words into action,” said Bland Washington, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, who participated in the march.
Hunter’s church may technically be out of reach of the BRAVE initiative’s efforts in the 70805 ZIP code — and more recently, the neighboring 70802. But that hasn’t stopped Hunter from getting involved in the program in the hopes that its resources might soon be applied to his church’s neighborhood.
Hunter’s interest stems from a difficult and stubborn crime rate. He cited FBI’s national statistics for Baton Rouge that show an average of 64 homicides, almost 1,000 robberies and almost 4,000 burglaries per year across the last five years, from 2009 to 2013. In Baton Rouge Police Department’s District 4, a policing area that includes much of North Baton Rouge and Hunter’s church, an average of about 15 people were killed, and more than 180 were robbed, each year over the same timeframe.
Hunter said the high numbers suggest “a culture of crime” that needs to be stopped. He attended a three-day BRAVE training session at LSU in August that helped instruct church leaders how to help their congregations work together with law enforcement, and Hunter even volunteered to “adopt” his church as a meeting point for law enforcement in BRPD’s District 4.
BRAVE is a city-wide crime-fighting effort that seeks to single out those most likely to commit crimes and give them stern warnings and ways to avoid illegal activity before handing down harsh sentences for those who continue to commit crimes.
“We’d become a part of the apparatus to keep the community safe,” Hunter said.
Hunter also attended the most recent BRAVE “call-in” on Tuesday night — a meeting between police and law enforcement where those at risk are informed of ways out of a criminal lifestyle and are also warned against continuing any illegal behavior.
Hunter is already well-known in Baton Rouge for his crime-fighting efforts — in 2011 he founded the Black Family Initiative, which counsels single mothers and their children in an effort to alleviate family tensions at home. The program’s counselors have spent more than 2,000 hours visiting parents and students who are at risk of being arrested for a crime. Many of the family receive at least 50 hours of counseling, and Hunter has said the results were encouraging. In April, more than 50 of the 80 youths between 7 and 17 years old have not become re-offenders.
In August, Hunter helped organize a clearing away of overgrown lots and trees in the Glen Oaks West neighborhood that grouped together residents with church leaders and BRAVE officials.
The march is only the latest of Hunter’s efforts. As the marchers walked down Sumrall, the street’s residents watched from their homes, and some approached the procession, at which point Hunter would hand out pamphlets about crime prevention strategies.
“You just gotta show that you’re not afraid of them,” said Baton Rouge resident Carolyn Williams-Zeno of the young people likely to commit crimes.
Williams-Zeno’s 21-year-old son Chad was killed in the Sherwood Forest area in 2007. Williams-Zeno has since founded the Healing Hearts Support Group, which counsels families who have been subjected to trauma.
“Sometimes they just want people to listen to them,” she said of at-risk youth.
Until the crime rate declines, participants in the march said they welcomed the new lights. Entergy finished installing nearly 100 of them earlier this week and march participants hoped that better lighting might have an impact on crime in the future.
“We just feel better,” said Velma Barnes, vice president of the Glen Oaks West Homeowner’s Association. “We’re able to look out the windows.”