In response to Baton Rouge's rise in violent crime, acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson announced Thursday that federal and local law enforcement will create a new "strike force" aimed at locking up the area's most dangerous criminals while deterring others on that path.
The "Violent Criminal Enterprises Strike Force" will use collective intelligence from more than 10 local, state and federal agencies to target the most violent groups in Baton Rouge, then prosecute them with "severe sentences," Amundson said at a press conference.
"The first principle of law enforcement is deterrence, that is what we seek," Amundson said. "Filling prisons is not our goal; our goal is to prevent crime."
Violent crime in the city of Baton Rouge most recently peaked in 2012, before dropping considerably for the following three years — an improvement local leaders have often credited to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program. A federally-funded initiative implemented in late 2012 that recently came to an end, BRAVE targeted young gang members involved in crime, also using intelligence about who were the most likely offenders in the parish.
Amundson said many of BRAVE's strategies were successful, such as "call-ins" of young people who law enforcement wanted to encourage to stop engaging in criminal activity. But he said "the progress has stopped."
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In 2016, violent crime in the city of Baton Rouge — which not only includes killings, but also crimes like armed robbery and aggravated assaults — rose about 7 percent, and then continued to increase throughout the first half of 2017, according to 2016 FBI crime statistics and the Baton Rouge Police Department. However, the current rate of violent crime in Baton Rouge is still below the pre-BRAVE 2012 statistics.
Homicides in the parish are also on the rise this year, with 79 killings already in 2017, surpassing each of the last four years of homicide totals and only four behind the number from 2012, which remains the highest annual tally in five years, according to The Advocate records.
While Baton Rouge law enforcement officials have argued the BRAVE program was successful at reducing crime in Baton Rouge, particularly in its first few years, the initiative ended in September with about $1 million left in unspent federal grants dollars. The U.S. Department of Justice refused to extend the program because of troubles with administration of the grant money, while program data also showed it served fewer young people than had originally been envisioned. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, along with other BRAVE leaders, have pledged to continue the initiative through a nonprofit.
On Thursday, Moore also said he sees the new strike force as another strategy to address violent "enterprises" that continue to breed violent crime.
"This is BRAVE on steroids, with more than just juvenile offenders," Moore said.
The task force will be made up of more than 50 different representatives from the U.S. Attorney's office, the Department of Justice's Organized Crime and Gang section, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, State Police, the Baton Rouge Police Department, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, the parish's District Attorney office and the parish's Constable.
Amundson said the strike force is intended to address group violence, one of the three main drivers of crime in the area, along with drug trafficking and domestic violence.
He called for an increased focus on federal gun prosecution, which can often lock up people on firearm offenses for up to 15 years in federal prisons.
Amundson also said his office, joined by the others, will "aggressively pursue drug traffickers, not mere users," by using mandatory minimum sentences.
"If we're serious about reducing violent crime, we need to keep violent offenders behind bars so they cannot do any more harm and so others will be deterred from following in their footsteps," Amundson said.
Finally, Amundson broke down a variety of Department of Justice grants awarded in the last month to support ongoing local law enforcement initiatives — including funds for domestic violence programs, prison reentry, sexual assault survivors, body camera implementation and victim assistance. Most of these grants, which total more than $32 million, have been in existence or were already in the pipeline, but will start flowing this fall with the start of the federal budget year.
The new initiative and push for increased focus on violent crime came during the same week when Baton Rouge Police Interim Chief Jonny Dunnam asked for support from State Police to help beef up patrols. The department is working with noticeable gaps in their force, as vacancies in the agency are unusually high.
City police and state troopers did not discuss the potential collaboration Thursday at the press conference, though Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely said they are continuing to work out the logistics. The State Police force is also operating with fewer troopers, McKneely said, which could limit what they can offer.
"Everybody's shorthanded," McKneely said. "So they're trying to figure out the best plan."
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome released a statement after the announcement, calling the strike force a “collaborative effort” that will help with local efforts to prevent and reduce violent crime.
“The announcement made today by Acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson sends a strong message to those who terrorize our neighborhoods, threatening to tear apart the families that make up the fabric of our capital city,” Broome said in her statement. "I look forward to the collaborative efforts of the Violent Criminal Enterprises Strike Force in apprehending, investigating and bringing to justice criminals who walk our streets."