Local officials and law enforcement leaders gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the opening of Baton Rouge's first community connections center, which aims to create a "safe place" for interactions between residents and police officers.
The center is located in Old South Baton Rouge and two more are set to open soon in Scotlandville and Mid City. They'll provide office space for Baton Rouge police officers assigned to the district in which they're located, so residents can walk in and meet with the officer on duty — whether passing along a crime tip or just stopping to chat.
Ideas for the program arose in the aftermath of a turbulent summer 2016 when Baton Rouge experienced the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling and subsequent ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and wounded three others. Metro council members Tara Wicker and Trae Welch founded a committee to research law enforcement policy changes just months later and the group's recommendations included community connections centers.
"We are extremely excited for today. We have been talking about this for a very, very long time," Wicker said before the ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday morning. "We know there are individuals who may never step foot inside the police department, but they will come here to this neutral ground … and actually make a real connection."
The recommendations also included a community police ambassadors program, which launched in 2018 and also aims to improve relations between police and the people they serve. The first class of ambassadors has helped coordinate recent efforts to locate connections centers in their communities.
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Space for the first one was donated by the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority. The building is located at the corner of Thomas H. Delpit and River South Drive, which once contained dilapidated housing projects but was revamped in the early 2000s and is now lined with pastel colored single family homes.
Officials said the building will host community events in addition to providing office space, including children's educational programs from Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul has emphasized the importance of tips from residents since he took office in January 2018. He argues community support and better technology will help the department "do more with less" and take a more proactive approach to fighting crime despite chronic staffing shortages and low starting salaries.
"When we create opportunities for our police officers can interact and engage with the community, and it's not based on a negative stimulus — when it's something positive — then we begin to build relationships," Paul said at the ceremony Thursday. "That's what it's all about. It's building relationships."
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