Two Louisiana Congressmen called on the federal government Thursday to afford city-parish officials an additional year to spend $1.6 million in grant dollars dedicated to the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program, saying it would be a "historic tragedy" to allow the unused funding to expire at the end of the summer.
U.S. Reps. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, urged the U.S. Department of Justice to extend the looming deadline, saying the anti-gang initiative has led to a "significant drop in crime," including a 25 percent reduction in murders in the Capital City.
Local authorities, they added, have been consumed by dealing with intense events on the ground in Baton Rouge: the July protests that followed the police-involved shooting death of Alton Sterling, the attack later that month by a lone gunman on Baton Rouge law enforcement — in which three officers were killed — and the catastrophic flooding in August. All these emergencies distracted officials from carrying out certain components of the BRAVE program, they said in the letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"Because BRAVE has proven successes, we ask that law enforcement and the community be given additional time to expend these dollars and continue this work," write Graves and Richmond, whose district includes part of Baton Rouge. "The community remains committed to carrying out the mission of the BRAVE program, but we are asking that you recognize the need for more time to do so in light of these extraordinary circumstances."
The letter comes as Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration awaits word from the federal government on a request it made recently to extend the current deadline to spend the BRAVE grant, Sept. 18, to the end of August 2018. City-parish officials described the extension as a long shot — the feds already extended the grant once — but said the extra time would allow for the implementation of 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," James Gilmore, Broome's assistant chief administrative officer, wrote in a recent letter to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "Hundreds of youth will miss opportunities to develop healthy coping skills, as well as reflect on alternative means of addressing negative circumstances."
Graves said he plans to meet with Justice Department officials on Friday to stress both the success of BRAVE and what he called the extenuating circumstances the community has faced over the past 10 months.
"I think that law enforcement and the folks involved in this program were juggling quite a bit," Graves said in a telephone interview. "The important thing is focusing on the outcomes, and the outcomes here are huge. The (Baton Rouge) area is one that absolutely needs this type of program."
BRAVE was launched in 2012 with an initial $1.5 million grant. The crime-fighting initiative, modeled after the nationally acclaimed Operation Ceasefire, identified the city's gang members in an effort to stop retaliatory shootings. The program focused initially on the crime-ridden 70805 ZIP code and, with the help of a subsequent $1 million grant, expanded into the 70802 ZIP code.
Those areas still account for roughly half of the city's killings, but law enforcement officials say the program has reduced violent crime and interrupted gang activity. The city last year recorded the lowest number of murders it has seen since before Hurricane Katrina.
Much of the federal money has been dedicated to data collection and targeted research that seeks to identify — and offer assistance to— at-risk youths, crime-fighting tools that East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said would be in jeopardy without BRAVE funding.
"BRAVE is working," he told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge last week, referring in part to the reduction in homicides. "These numbers represent millions of dollar saved for our parish for each life spared and each life not incarcerated."
While BRAVE has won widespread praise, the city-parish has left a significant portion of the grant dollars on the table. Gilmore said that much of the unused money is tied the "preventative" programs included in BRAVE, including those offering job skills and mental-health services to youths. He noted that some of the churches and local organizations that were supposed to partner with BRAVE could not afford to front the money to participate and wait to be reimbursed by grant funding.