The federal government has denied a request by city-parish officials to extend funding for the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project, citing a series of concerns with the administration of a grant that has been credited with reducing bloodshed in the city's most violent neighborhoods.
The feds, in pulling the plug, noted the grant funding BRAVE already had been extended once and that East Baton Rouge Parish nevertheless left more than $1 million on the table that had been earmarked for the popular crime-fighting initiative — unused dollars that will now expire at the end of the summer.
"The grant administration was a failure," said James Gilmore, who serves as assistant chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. "It's a disappointment, with so much need in our community, to not be able to spend the full amount of the money."
The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention informed the city-parish about three weeks ago that the grant would not be extended, Gilmore said. The administration of the grant had become so slipshod under the prior administration that some of the federal dollars were frozen during the last quarter of 2016, he said.
"They said we had a history of reporting the performance data late or not reporting it at all," Gilmore added, recalling a phone call with a federal official. "They didn't think we were impacting enough people."
The denial delivered an embarrassing blow to city-parish officials, who in recent weeks have blamed former Mayor-President Kip Holden's administration for failing to make use of the grant dollars even as it touted the success of BRAVE.
The program, launched in 2012, has been credited with reducing the city's murder rate, in part by identifying the city's gangs and their respective members and interrupting the cycle of retaliatory violence that for years has fueled the city's murder rate.
BRAVE is heavily data driven, but Gilmore said some of the data being collected and reported "didn't align with what the feds wanted."
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III expressed shock in an interview Wednesday that "there was any type of reporting issue" associated with the grant, adding he and his office "would have tried to intercede and rectify any problem" if he had known of one. He said authorities from several other jurisdictions have visited Baton Rouge in recent years to learn about the BRAVE program and the impact it has had on the local crime rate.
"It's very surprising to me," Moore said. "For years, we were the darlings of the grant world because everything was so successful. We at the District Attorney's Office never saw the administrative end of it."
City-parish officials said they plan to seek private funding and additional grant opportunities to continue BRAVE. Moore pointed to a BRAVE nonprofit that he said will be used to raise funds.
"I think that we are as prepared as we can be to proceed without the grant money," he added.
Modeled after the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire, BRAVE began with an initial $1.5 million grant that focused on the 70805 ZIP code, an area bordered by Airline Highway to the north and east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west.
An additional $1 million later allowed BRAVE to include the adjacent 70802 ZIP code, another epicenter of violence that is bordered by Choctaw Drive to the north, the Mississippi River and Nicholson Drive to the west, LSU to the south, and North Foster Drive, North Street and Park Boulevard to the east. Those two ZIP codes together still account for roughly half of the city's killings.
BRAVE was based on the premise that violence is rooted in a "group dynamic" and can be reduced when law enforcement, residents and social service providers offer gang members alternatives to a life of crime. The community-policing initiative generally has targeted 12- to 24-year-olds known to be associated with gangs, a demographic that authorities have determined to be 900 times more likely to be the perpetrator or victim of a murder.
Broome's administration asked the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention earlier this year to extend the unused BRAVE funding from the current deadline of Sept. 18 to the end of August 2018.
At the time, Gilmore wrote a letter to federal officials saying the extension would allow the city-parish to implement several new programs for youth, including job skills, arts and intramural basketball programs.
"A denial of this extension will diminish the lasting impact of BRAVE in providing an intervention approach aimed at diverting youth from a violent criminal pathway," he wrote. "Hundreds of youth will miss opportunities to develop healthy coping skills, as well as reflect on alternative means of addressing negative circumstances."