Advocate staff photo by Emma Discher -- A crowd gathers at the scene of a fatal shooting on East Polk Street in Baton Rouge on Thursday, June 29, 2017.

Killings in East Baton Rouge Parish last year dropped to the lowest level seen in more than a decade, sparking cautious optimism among law enforcement leaders that their crime fighting strategies were working.

But homicides have rebounded in the first half of 2017, potentially erasing that progress if this year's trend continues through December. By just over midway through the year, the number of homicides has reached 68 percent of last year's total of 61 murders. 

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said the increase is disquieting because the department is still running the same programs and maintaining the same strategies as before.

“It’s really frustrating when you do so much work and you think you got it and then the numbers start going up,” Dabadie said.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III echoed Dabadie's disappointment, but emphasized that the parish last year had escaped the rising murder rates seen in some cities across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice noted in an April report that the 30 largest cities saw murder rate increases in 2015 and 2016, but emphasized that overall the rate of murders and other violent crime has plummeted over the past 25 years. 

Moore noted that 2016 "was just an unusually good year for Baton Rouge so it’s a tough number to ever recreate, but it’s surely one that we strive to." One question last year was whether the August floods, which swamped a lot of the parish and forced many people to at least temporarily relocate, had a positive effect on violent crime. 

By the end of the day Friday there had been 42 killings within the parish defined as manslaughter or murder by law enforcement, which is significantly higher than the 27 in the same time period of 2016 and more than the 34 during the rest of 2016. Like other police agencies, the BRPD and East Baton Rouge Sheriff's office report to the FBI homicides that aren't ruled justified or accidental, data that has become a crucial metric for law enforcement leaders to judge the effectiveness of parish programs. 

If Baton Rouge sees the same number of killings in the second half of the year as the first, the total would reach 80 homicides, which is higher than each of the previous four years. In 2012 there were 83 homicides, but the number has stayed below 80 since then.

But murder trends aren't static, with spikes and lulls common over the course of a year. For example, last year saw 13 killings in November, which amounted to more than 20 percent of homicides. 

In addition to a continuation of existing BRPD programs, the city will soon see additional support in fighting violent crime from the U.S. Department of Justice as one of a dozen cities selected for the federal National Public Safety Partnership.

Dabadie said he will soon be in meetings to learn more about the program and what it can do for Baton Rouge, but added that he welcomes the assistance. Moore said the program will kickoff in about a month and will offer technical assistance that will increase collaboration between departments and existing programs.

Baton Rouge area law enforcement have already tried to look at violence on the streets more holistically. Local, state and federal agencies started meeting weekly in June to look at shots fired, non-fatal shooting and homicides to take a step towards more collaboration in addressing violence, Moore said. Future plans for a "real time" crime unit will help BRPD officers track incidents as they happen and thus better allocate officers and resources, Moore added.

Not only is 2017 higher than 2016 so far, but the monthly tallies have consistently grown since the beginning of the year. East Baton Rouge saw five homicides in both January and February this year, six in both March and April, seven in May and 11 in June. There were two homicides in the first week of July, as of Friday.

The killings have been concentrated in the city, as the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office has handled seven cases so far this year, less than the 10 assigned to EBRSO investigators during the same period in 2016. The Baker Police Department had one case, while the rest were in the jurisdiction of the city police department.

LSU criminologist Ed Shihadeh and Moore both said it is important to focus on longer trends with homicides, not just track the tallies of one year to the next. 

Shihadeh credits law enforcement programs like the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Program for a substantial drop in homicides from 2012 to 2016. BRAVE works to reduce and eradicate violent crimes by targeting youths believed to be in potentially violent groups or gangs between 12 and 24 years old and is largely focused in the 70805 and 70802 zip codes, which are typically the areas that report more violent crime. 

Despite the overall increase in homicides this year, Moore said that portion of them connected to group crime or gangs seems to have held steady while those associated with domestic violence or drugs account for the surge. After the success of programs like BRAVE, he says the next steps are to shift focus to those other areas. 

So far in 2017, 24 percent of homicides occurred in the 70805 zip code and 21 percent happened in the 70802 zip code, such as the fatal shooting in late June of Donald Wayne “DW” Ely on East Polk Street.

Ely’s neighborhood friend Kingar Taylor was on the scene, just a few blocks from where her son, 18-year-old Keondrae Ricks, was fatally shot outside their home in November. Taylor said she is trying to move away from her neighborhood to a different part of Baton Rouge as she is growing increasingly concerned about violence.

“I don’t know how they think they can get away with this,” said Taylor, of Ely’s assailant. “I guess they don’t value life. … They hurt the family. Their whole life is changed because of this.”

Moving forward through the summer and remainder of the year, Dabadie is hopeful that the monthly statistics shrink.

“I’m hoping that we’ve peaked now and we’re heading back down hill,” Dabadie said. “We’re working to get those numbers back down. Nobody wants them back down more than we do.”

Follow Emma Discher on Twitter, @EmmaDischer.