On her first day interning at the nonprofit Gardere Initiative, Tonyea McCaleb was nervous.
Growing up on the other side of the parish, all she ever heard was negative comments about the south Baton Rouge neighborhood.
She expected rampant crime and rundown neighborhoods trashed by litter.
“That’s all I used to hear in high school was that it was really horrible,” McCaleb said on a recent afternoon as she typed up notes at the Gardere Initiative’s Ned Avenue headquarters. “What I was thinking, what I’d see doesn’t really match. My perception of the neighborhood doesn’t really match what it is.”
What McCaleb has noticed is the product of years of work, with police retooling their tactics and community groups tackling crime and other problems in the neighborhood. Sheriff Sid Gautreaux’s deputies have dropped the “us against them” approach and turned to community policing, showing an interest in the well-being of Gardere’s residents. At the same time, the neighborhood has been targeted recently by some of law enforcement’s most aggressive tactics focused on rooting out gang violence.
Gardere, a 3-square-mile area near L’Auberge Casino encompassing GSRI Avenue, Skysail Avenue and Pascagoula Drive, has presented a particular challenge for the Sheriff’s Office, whose territory outside incorporated Baton Rouge tends to be more suburban and rural. U.S. census data showed that more than 32 percent of neighborhood residents live below the poverty level, compared with 18.7 percent in the state as a whole.
The area had more than 10,500 residents in 2010 and only makes up 3.3 square miles of the parish’s 455 square miles of land, yet Gardere represents a disproportionate number of calls for the sheriff.
Capt. Andrew Stevens Jr., the substation commander for the Gardere area who first patrolled the neighborhood 20 years ago, remembers harder times when teenagers were often unsupervised and when deputies only showed up to patrol, arrest and transport suspects to jail. Maj. Anthony Ponton, a former station commander in Gardere who also first worked the area with Stevens in 1994, remembers suspicious teenagers “flipping the bird” at deputies.
But for nearly seven years, the Sheriff’s Office has tried to foster an attitude shift that stresses to deputies they must build relationships with the people they police, especially children ages 8 to 15. The policing jargon to describe these tactics is “community policing,” but Stevens said the change was about showing that deputies can have a personal investment in improving the areas they oversee.
“A long time ago, police had the mindset (of) us against them,” Stevens said. “You cannot police like you did 20 years ago. If you make them feel a part of what you’re doing, you get less resistance, you get less confusion when you create that transparency.”
This year, they ramped up these efforts, creating a full-time substation at L’Auberge Crossing near Nicholson Drive in April, which is now staffed with 31 deputies. When Gautreaux took office, Gardere was patrolled by two deputies each shift and they drove into Gardere from the Kleinpeter Substation on Airline Highway, between Pecue Lane and Highland Road.
“I’ve been cooking hot dogs and hamburgers for the last five months,” Stevens said, adding that he has become affectionately known as ‘Captain Hot Dog’ by local youths, a nickname he embraces because it means he’s making a connection with the children. He’s given out his cellphone number, encouraging residents to call him at all times of the day.
Deputies are encouraged to ride with their windows down, to stop and talk to residents, not just for official reasons. Ponton introduces himself to residents as Anthony.
Whether or not these efforts deserve the credit, crime in Gardere has declined since 2006, the year before Gautreaux took office. A look at the “calls for service” to the neighborhood provided by the Sheriff’s Office shows that incidents in general have been more than halved. In particular, deputies in 2013 responded to 53 percent fewer burglaries and almost half the number of assaults or batteries as in 2006. The number of stolen cars plummeted from 197 reported stolen in 2006 to 33 in 2013, an 83 percent decline.
Murders are down, too, from seven in the neighborhood in 2008 to two last year. So far this year, there have been two murders in Gardere, with two men in May found shot dead in a Gardere Lane apartment complex. That case is still unsolved.
Reports of gunshots have declined after a dramatic spike from 22 in 2007 to 206 in 2008 — but Stevens said the jump actually represents deputies’ improved relationship with the community, as the initial low reflected the fact that neighbors years ago didn’t bother to call 911 when they heard gunfire. Since 2008, calls about “shots fired” dropped to the low 100s before falling again to 49 calls in 2013.
The strategies applied by law enforcement haven’t all been friendly. In April, authorities arrested 28 suspected members of the “Big Money Block Boyz” gang on counts including racketeering and attempted murder. Ponton said the crackdown on the gang was significant because it showed the impressionable youth in Gardere — who idolized the gang — the consequences if they follow in the gang’s footsteps.
That bust was part of the parish’s BRAVE initiative, Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, an effort by local law enforcement to target local gangs or neighborhood groups involved in crime, particularly violent crime.
The Sheriff’s Office two weeks ago received a $150,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to bring BRAVE tactics and statistical support to target violent crime in the Gardere area. The funding begins in October and goes for two years. The money will be spread between the Gardere Initiative to provide outreach and community development programs, and LSU for statistical analysis.
The BRAVE effort should dovetail with the sheriff’s community policing efforts as the initiative targets those deemed most likely to commit crimes and tries to persuade others to leave the criminal life altogether.
Along with policing efforts, groups like the Gardere Initiative, the South Burbank Crime Prevention District and the Hermitage-Cross Creek Crime Prevention and Development District work with deputies at the Sheriff’s Office’s Gardere Substation to address causes of crime like poverty, joblessness and idle time among teens. The groups bring in teens for summer camps as a way to give them something to do during their downtime as well as offer activities that meld sports and mentoring like the Youth Peace Olympic on the weekends.
Several of these community leaders had high praise for the Sheriff’s Office’s change in attitude over the years.
“I think they are getting to the point where they know people and know who is harmless and who is not,” said Reginald Brown, a volunteer with the Gardere Initiative who works with residents on a daily basis, of sheriff’s deputies. The Gardere Initiative organizes summer camps, swim lessons, adult education and a range of other programs.
Murelle Harrison, executive director of the Gardere Initiative, said she used to hear a lot of stories about deputies harassing people, but those stories are not commonplace these days.
“The community sees them in entirely different roles,” she said. “They are visible.”
Tristan Richard, a lifelong Gardere resident, also celebrated the drop in crime in the neighborhood. He said his neighbors are no longer scared to walk outside, and many are reporting crime to deputies more often.
LSU criminologist Ed Shihadeh who oversees BRAVE research, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the decline in Gardere’s crime figures, but added, “I don’t think it’s going to be classed as a low-crime area anytime soon.”
Harrison said the “no snitching” culture among young people is something the community continues to fight. She said once they change that culture, then Gardere will experience an even greater drop in crime because people will be less scared to report a crime.
“We have to change the mindset and that takes time,” she said.
Residents have noticed how far Gardere still has to go. Brown, the Gardere Initiative volunteer, said someone recently broke into the group’s headquarters through a back window but did not steal anything before walking out the front door as the security alarm blared overhead.
“We have to redouble our efforts to reach out to folks,” Brown said.