Homicides are down in East Baton Rouge Parish this year.
In the first six months of 2016, the parish saw 27 killings compared to the 33 slayings that occurred by this time last year, as well as the two years before that. At no point in the past five years has the mid-year homicide level been as low as it is now.
Last year, 78 people were killed in the parish. If the current homicide rate were to be replicated in the second half of 2016, there’d be a total of 54 slayings.
The drop comes at a time when homicide rates have surged in many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group comprised of the 63 largest urban areas in the United States. Baton Rouge is not one of them.
But local officials say they feel jittery about making any predictions about a less murderous year, especially since summer — when school is out and warm weather supposedly coaxes people outside — is just getting started.
“That’s a well-known criminological theory, that crime does go up in the summer,” said Cecile Guin, director of the Office of Social Service Research and Development at LSU. “A lot of it is because kids are out of school. A lot of it is because in so many low-income neighborhoods, they don’t have air conditioning. They’re hot, and they’re out a lot. And they’re bored.”
In three of the past five years in East Baton Rouge Parish, a disproportionately high number of killings happened during June, July and August, according to The Advocate’s records.
That’s why officials have started a new weekly summertime series of “pop up” events to divert otherwise idle youngsters and improve relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
The “Beat the Heat” program by East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III — in partnership with the Baton Rouge Police Department, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office and the four-year-old anti-crime initiative known as the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, among other groups — involves setting up free activities for residents to have fun with law enforcement in public spaces this summer.
“You put up a snowball stand, a water slide, a rock climbing wall, and people come,” Moore said. He added that some of the events will also include HIV testing and other services.
Guin, who also serves as the lead evaluator for BRAVE and has studied crime for some four decades, said there is a correlation between keeping young people involved in positive summertime activities and lowering crime.
Though the homicide rate is not the only indicator of violence — indeed, some experts say to look at the number of shootings — counting homicides is the most easily-accessible way to tabulate crime fluctuations, Moore said. Every police agency already submits annual numbers to the FBI, which tracks killings categorized by law enforcement as murders and non-negligent manslaughter. Tracking shots fired, along with fatal and non-fatal shootings, is a more complicated process, said Moore.
Sometimes, minor shootings aren’t recorded at all, LSU criminologist Ed Shihadeh pointed out. But a dead body is unambiguous and is always documented, he noted.
“I like looking at homicides because homicides are the tip of the violent crime iceberg,” Shihadeh said.
And while law enforcement officials were careful not to claim any one reason why homicides are down this year, a few theories emerged: BRAVE and a new data-driven initiative known as the Crime Strategies Unit are working, relations between different police agencies and the people they serve have improved, and key criminals have been locked up.
Since the beginning of 2013, when BRAVE was funded, violent crime indicators including homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults and illegal use of a weapon have dropped across the parish, according to data provided by Guin. In the 70805 zip code alone — which is one of BRAVE’s target areas — homicides dropped 49 percent since the start of 2013 compared to the three-year span before that, the numbers show.
Though BRAVE didn’t receive funding until 2013, the program has been gathering information on groups of people predisposed to crime since about June 2012, Guin said.
“We’ve arrested several folks here who we think are killers,” said Moore, who added he’s referring to those accused of murder and others who are believed to be potential killers.
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux III said some of the improvement owes to an ongoing working relationship between his detectives and their counterparts with the Baton Rouge Police Department in the joint violent crimes unit, housed at the State Police headquarters.
“They’re there every day, looking at each other, talking to each other, and exchanging information,” Gautreaux said.
Last year, Moore announced the launch of the CSU, a group comprised of district attorney’s office staff members and LSU interns who analyze large amounts of local crime data.
Shihadeh, the LSU criminologist, said the CSU, which he helped create, gathers intelligence about which groups of youngsters are fighting each other so that law enforcement officers can knock on doors and intervene before bad feelings become deadly.
“That’s never happened before,” he said. “They’re picking through (the intelligence) with a fine-toothed comb and figuring out who is mad at whom.”
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. acknowledged the new data initiatives help his officers identify “hot zones” so they can do more patrols in those areas.
He also said efforts at old-fashioned community policing might be paying off.
“We stress to our officers: We want you to get out of the cars and talk to people. You know, you see somebody on the road, you see some kids playing. Stop and talk to them,” he said. “It takes less than five minutes.”
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.