Instead of guns and handcuffs, a new team of Baton Rogue residents is relying on a different tool to try and halt the city's high and rapidly rising homicide rate: trust.
The city broke its record for homicides last year and is on pace to see even more this year. According to a Byrne Criminal Justice Grant application submitted by the city in 2013, the gun violence is concentrated in the 70802 and 70805 ZIP codes, which include Eden Park, Istrouma, Greenville Extension, Midtown, Smiley Heights, Fairfields and Melrose East.
Characterized as “hotspots,” the grant application argued poverty, disinvestment, lack of education, limited jobs and disempowerment are what's driving crime in the neighborhoods. As one possible solution, the city has created the Baton Rouge Community Street Teams Unit.
The idea is that police crackdowns can't address those root causes of violence — but people with history and trust in those neighborhoods can. The team members are carefully chosen for their backgrounds and records of community involvement.
“We understand because we have skin in the game," member Gregory Phillips said. "You can’t be in an ivory tower dictating what people should do. You have to be in the trenches.”
Before each outing, the unit assembles to discuss the assignment ahead and hand out roles.
From day to day, members take turns being the engager, who introduces the street team to residents and explains the group’s purpose; the recorder, who takes down suggestions from residents about changes they’d like to see in their community; the navigator, who helps with security and directs the team where to go; and the High-Risk Interventionists — the ones dispatched to the scenes of violent crimes to speak with family of the victim and offer support.
On one recent Monday, Renetta Bell took on the role of navigator, following the group in her car as they made their way down North 23rd Street, stopping frequently to talk to neighbors and gather information.
A social worker for over 30 years, Bell made her career primarily as a substance abuse counselor in the Baton Rouge area. In her spare time, she’s a well-known community organizer who leads Eternal Crisis Outreach, a nonprofit organization that provides support to people living with substance abuse disorder.
“People are glad to see anybody out here doing something positive,” she says as she slowly trails the team in her white sedan, honking to alert the group to passing cars. “They’re ready to take their community back.”
'Promised the world'
Baton Rouge has tried similar strategies before, but has had a hard time sustaining success.
In 2012, the city launched the Baton Rouge Violence Elimination program, or BRAVE. Paid for using nearly $1 million in grants, BRAVE included law enforcement, social service providers, churches, industry partners and an LSU research team. Its objective: reduce violent crimes committed by youth ages 12 to 24 in East Baton Rouge.
A three-year evaluation report for BRAVE found the model to be a moderate success, with an overall decrease in violent crime in targeted zip codes between 2012 and 2015.
But questions arose over a significant amount of grant funding that went unspent. And BRAVE didn't reach its goal of coaxing 100 to 125 young people to join the program. It was discontinued in 2017.
The following year, the parish introduced Truce, a still-active anti-violence program aimed at giving young male offenders the option to accept support services in order to keep them off the streets.
Then, in September 2020, the city announced it would use a portion of its $2.5 million in federal CARES Act funds to launch the Baton Rouge Community Street Teams Unit.
Unlike BRAVE, the Streets Team operates mostly independently of the city’s police department. That's key to building trust and ensuring the team is an effort by the people, for the people, Bell explained.
“A lot of people in the community, they don’t trust the police, so we’re trying to tell them we’re not the police,” she said.
Phillips added: “(Residents) are very reluctant, because people — politicians, churches — have promised the world but have not delivered."
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome emphasized that the intention is not to substitute police presence in emergency situations, but to instead complement BRPD by providing residents with people who know the community well and can connect with them on a personal level.
Although the program is still in its infancy, local officials are hopeful it will produce tangible results.
In three and a half months, BRCST has interacted with almost 100 residents and families in high-risk areas and connected more than 65 people to vital programs and services, including career and employment counseling, health resources and more, the mayor's office says.
“I certainly think that the street team is fulfilling our original mission, which is recognizing that when we talk about public safety, it’s not only law enforcement, but also community involvement,” Broome said. “These community street teams have helped us close that gap.
“They’ve improved relationships with people, they’re building trust, and all of that, I believe, adds to us creating a safer community.”
On a recent Tuesday, a group of Baton Rouge's most notorious young men — all affiliated with a neighborhood quasi-gang — sat in a courtroom, f…
'We touched some people'
After the group finished its roughly two-hour long trek of the neighborhood, it formed a circle in the parking lot of Capitol High School for a debriefing.
Member Darius Crockett was excited to share about a young man in his early 20s he spoke with who had recently been released from prison. He seemed interested when Crockett tried to talk to him about local programs that provide resources for young offenders.
For Crockett and the rest of the team, the man’s interest is a win.
“I feel good,” Crockett told the group. “We touched some people.”
One of just two men in the program — and its youngest member at 28 — Crockett, a Baton Rouge native, said he feels his presence is an important part of the Street Teams’ mission.
He explained that, because he comes from a similar background as many of the young men and teens he talks to, they have an easier time connecting with him and are often more willing to hear what he has to say.
That doesn’t mean the experience has been easy.
“I’m sacrificing a lot because it’s not normal for a young, Black, 28-year-old guy to walk around the neighborhood and tell people that we got resources,” Crockett said.
However, it’s the small victories that make it worthwhile.
“There’s certain people you’re going to touch, and they’re going to take your knowledge, and they’re going to run with it,” he added. “Those people are the ones who are going to bring it back here.”