Two-and-a-half years after Baton Rouge launched a crime-fighting experiment aimed at convincing young gang members to walk away from their groups, 33 people have put down their weapons and embraced social services offered by law enforcement and community members, officials said.
This was one statistic directed Tuesday night at 26 youths who showed up to the seventh “call-in” organized by Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination. These meetings — a presentation that’s part sales pitch, part talking-to — are aimed at the young people law enforcement officials say are responsible for most of the capital city’s homicides and violence.
The young men and boys, all black, ranged in age from 13 to 21 years old. They lined the rows of a 19th Judicial District courtroom at the after-hours meeting, many accompanied by their weeping, frustrated mothers.
They are part of a broader trend in cities across the United States, including New Orleans, Baltimore and Oakland, California, which all have embraced the criminal justice initiative known as Operation Ceasefire, after which BRAVE is modeled.
Officials said the fact that 33 of the young people they’ve targeted are apparently reformed is an indicator of BRAVE’s progress, even as 12 of the 172 youths the program reached out to have been slain, and many are now incarcerated.
Judging from the tears in the eyes of some of the youths, and their open expressions, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Tuesday night’s meeting showed him the program is resonating. BRAVE’s organizers expect that many will not heed the message of nonviolence, so to see that some are listening is an achievement, he said.
“I have been to all seven call-ins, and I thought that this was the best one yet,” he said. “I just felt more of a connection between the community speakers and the participants.”
Some of the improvement might be due to the speeches given by community leaders, including ministers, medical professionals and a funeral director, most of whom had been affected by violence or had parallel life experiences, Moore said.
“It’s a damn shame we have to be out here begging you to do something that should be a no-brainer,” local business owner Clay Young, one of the speakers, told the group.
Murmurs of support emanated from the mothers seated in the audience. Their sons, eight of whom came to the meeting in jumpsuits and handcuffs, leafed through custom packets that included their individual rap sheets, as well as information about social services available to them.
Jeff LeDuff, a former Baton Rouge police chief, told the crowd, “Your life will be judged by how you make your mother cry.”
BRAVE often says it’s played a role in East Baton Rouge Parish’s falling homicide rate, which has dropped from a recent high of 81 killings in 2011. Last year, police agencies reported 63 homicides to the FBI.
According to unofficial statistics compiled by The Advocate, 61 people have been slain so far this year in the parish, bringing the per-month homicide rate to slightly higher than in 2011. That tally doesn’t include negligent homicides or those deemed justified.
Despite the fact that homicides could rise again this year, many of them are not gang-related, as in past years, Moore said.
BRAVE began in 2012, and the first “call-in” took place April 3, 2013, East Baton Rouge Assistant District Attorney Aishala Burgess said.
Authorities at Tuesday’s meeting did not allow The Advocate to interview any of the youths.
But Patrick Green, president and coach of the South Baton Rouge Rams, a youth football team, said he’s “been in the same orange” as some of the young men in the audience.
“I buried 13 kids that played for me,” over the years, he said. He was surprised to see one of the young men he works with turn up at Tuesday’s meeting. His own development is one example of how people can improve, he said. And his past makes him all the more sympathetic toward the kids, some of whom he feeds every night because they’re not getting meals at home, he said.
“I go broke trying to help them, trying to save them,” he said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.