Baton Rouge police unit

A Baton Rouge police unit shown May 22, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

Five years after the launch of the vaunted Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project, city-parish officials have asked the federal government to allow them an extra year to spend the remaining $1.6 million earmarked for the crime-fighting initiative — unused grant dollars set to expire at the end of the summer. 

The request, which officials described as a long shot, highlights the growing uncertainty surrounding a data-driven program credited with reducing bloodshed in the city's most violent neighborhoods. 

In talks with the federal government, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration has touted BRAVE's success — murder in Baton Rouge fell last year to levels last seen before Hurricane Katrina — even as it seeks to explain why more than half of the federal funding dedicated to BRAVE remains untapped. The feds are expected to respond to the request by the end of the week.

"Without an extension, the efforts of BRAVE will be abbreviated and reduced dramatically," James Gilmore, Broome's assistant chief administrative officer, wrote in a recent letter to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The letter noted that the BRAVE grant already has received an extension from the federal government to spend the grant money. But a confluence of events appears to have distracted the prior administration from implementing certain BRAVE services, Gilmore said, pointing to last summer's devastating floods and the unrest that followed the police-involved shooting death of Alton Sterling. The city's attention and resources, he wrote, "have been devoted to survival and disaster recovery."

"We had eight to nine months out of the year where this program probably wasn't managed or wasn't the focus," Gilmore added in an interview.

BRAVE has been credited with transforming the way local law enforcement tracks and responds to violent crime. Hundreds of thousands of dollars has been spent on the research and data-collection aspects of the program.

The money left on the table, Gilmore said, "is what we call the preventative dollars," or funds related to providing job skills and mental-health services to at-risk youths. If the BRAVE grant was "beautifully written, the reality of implementation was a weakness of it," Gilmore added. Perhaps one flaw was the vision for partnering with churches and local organizations, which couldn't afford to front the dollars to hire social workers and then get reimbursed by the grant funding, he said. 

Launched in 2012 under former Mayor-President Kip Holden's administration, BRAVE targeted gun violence in Baton Rouge by identifying the city's gangs and their respective members, a coordinated effort to interrupt the cycle of retaliatory violence that fuels the murder rate. The initiative, modeled after the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire, is based on the premise that violence is rooted in a "group dynamic," and that it can be significantly reduced when law enforcement, citizens and social service providers offer gang members alternatives to a life of crime. It generally targets 12- to 24-year-olds known to be associated with gangs, a demographic that local authorities have determined to be 900 times more likely than other citizens to be the perpetrator or victim of a murder.  

Funded by a $1.5 million grant, the community-policing effort focused originally on the crime-ridden 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. It later expanded, with the help of an additional $1 million grant, 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. Taken together, those two ZIP codes still account for roughly half of the city's killings. BRAVE has also operated in the Gardere neighborhood in the south part of East Baton Rouge Parish. 

Altogether, about $900,000 was spent out of both grants, Gilmore said. 

Three times a year, local law enforcement leaders arrange a gathering known as a "call-in" in which authorities, joined by faith-based community leaders, offer gang members a host of services but also warn them that violence won't be tolerated, and that their failure to put down their weapons will result in swift prosecution. That hammer, as the authorities call it, has not been as heavy or utilized as originally envisioned, said Hillar Moore III, the East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney, in a recent interview.

"I don't think we've done as good of a job on enforcement as we should," Moore said. "I think BRAVE has been more kind and gentle than punitive in that regard."

Moore told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge last week that BRAVE has reduced the city's killings significantly over the past five years and provided law enforcement with a wealth of information about crime trends.

He said the authorities have spoken to more than 40 "groups" — a term local law enforcement uses to distinguish the city's loosely affiliated gangs from their more sophisticated counterparts in larger cities — and that "virtually every" one of them has decreased its violence. Researchers have reported that some 62 percent of the groups or gangs identified through BRAVE have since been downgraded to "inactive status."   

"One of the worst groups, the Block Boyz, was terrorizing Gardere," Moore told the Rotary Club. "Now most of their members are in jail facing prosecution or already committed to prison for lengthy terms." 

While BRAVE has resulted in few prosecutions, the federal funding has enabled a scientific approach to tracking crime "that we couldn't otherwise afford," Moore said in the interview. "A ton of research and data would be lost" if BRAVE were discontinued, he said. "We always have said that the day is going to come, sooner than later, where we have to determine how we're going to fund BRAVE." 

To that end, officials have taken steps to prepare for a BRAVE that is unmoored from federal funding. "In the last year, we set up a BRAVE nonprofit. We have a BRAVE board." Moore said. "It's really just getting off the ground to see if we can't raise money from private folks."

In the meantime, city-parish officials are holding out hope that the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will agree to extend the unused BRAVE funding from the current deadline of Sept. 18 to the end of August 2018. In his letter, Gilmore said an 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." 

Advocate staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this report.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.