Debra Ross was headed to her first Bible study of 2020 when she stopped home to change clothes and found herself walking into a nightmare: Her son was unresponsive in the living room.

Joah Ross, 26, was pronounced dead on Jan. 1, 2020. Investigators initially ruled the death an accidental drug overdose — until funeral home workers found a bullet wound. He was actually shot and left to die, Baton Rouge police later concluded.

The shifting narratives and broken trust, coupled with overwhelming and irreversible loss, created an almost unbearable combination, Debra Ross said. But she was not alone in the months that followed, as people around the world found themselves experiencing similar feelings of hopelessness, grief and uncertainty.

2020 was a year of monumental losses. While the coronavirus death toll climbed steadily, the East Baton Rouge Parish homicide rate rose to an unprecedented level, making 2020 the most murderous year in known history.

011021 BR homicides 2003-2020

Other communities are seeing similar trends: Based on preliminary data, criminologists believe the national murder rate experienced its largest single-year rise to date between 2019 and 2020.

At least 114 lives were lost to violence in East Baton Rouge Parish, shattering all previous records and presenting a significant increase over the previous high of 106 homicides in 2017. The numbers are drawn from records maintained by The Advocate, which tracks intentional and unjustified killings per FBI crime reporting rules. Those killings are considered criminal homicides and classified under the legal definitions of murder and manslaughter.

Nonfatal shootings surged as well, increasing more than 20% over 2019, officials said.

Debra Ross said she had stopped turning on the local news because she couldn't stand hearing about so much gun violence. But she never stopped praying for the families: dozens of young men leaving behind children and parents, an infant daughter growing up motherless, a BRPD officer gunned down while protecting his community, a young woman robbed of her toddler son.

"These are dark times," Ross said. "My arms are empty. I've never been down this road."

Experts are struggling to explain the trends but pointed to a confluence of factors.

People are under massive amounts of stress from the pandemic, often desperate for money and frustrated at the complete upheaval of normal life. Meanwhile nationwide protests against police brutality tested relationships among officers and their communities, and changes in the criminal justice system left law enforcement agencies struggling to be proactive and solve crime while adhering to social distancing requirements.

The Baton Rouge community also saw fractures in its model of crime prevention, response and accountability: from the closure of youth programs and support services to prolonged disruption of the court system.

In addition to a huge jump in domestic violence homicides across East Baton Rouge, there is one common thread that officials highlighted: People are killing each other more often during minor disagreements, resorting to excessive violence with little regard for the consequences. And more shootings are happening during daylight hours, not so often under cover of darkness.

The burden of this increased violence fell most heavily on the shoulders of Black families in Baton Rouge's poorest neighborhoods, where residents describe decades of decline and disinvestment — the same communities hit hardest in the coronavirus pandemic. 

With detectives struggling to manage historic caseloads, local law enforcement agencies still managed to solve a significant number of cases. But about 42% remain open with no arrests made.

The clearance rate was higher during the first six months of 2020 — about 74%, which is well above the national average — when killings also remained somewhat less frequent. Cases are considered cleared when an arrest has been made, or when a suspect is identified but arrest is impossible, most often because the person has died.

011021 BR homicide clearance rates

When Debra Ross learned that police had arrested her son's alleged killer, she was relieved to know the justice system was working. But a conviction won't fill the holes in her heart.

After losing her son, she focused on summoning the strength to get through each day, leaning on relatives and friends for support. She answered questions about death from her now fatherless granddaughter, practicing forgiveness even toward the man accused of pulling the trigger. She also received two knee replacements, sold her house and moved into an apartment — and most recently, survived COVID-19.

What got her through the darkest moments? Time and prayer.

"Those are the only things that will bring healing," she said. "I'm praying for a better 2021."

'So many factors at play'

The unprecedented murder rate was disappointing but not entirely surprising to Baton Rouge officials, because these are unprecedented times.

"The pandemic created all of these challenges and circumstances that we've just never seen before," said Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul. "There are so many factors at play here."

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III estimated that at least half of the homicides were drug-related or resulted from group or gang violence. 

The parish saw a similar trend in 2017 following the events of the previous summer: Widespread civil unrest after the death of Alton Sterling in July 2016, an ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and a catastrophic flood had brutalized the city, leaving many without security or stability.

That record-breaking year preceded two years of relative peace in 2018 and 2019, with 86 and 83 homicides respectively.

In explaining the 2017 spike, some experts referred to what sociologists call the social disorganization theory. The idea is that major disruptions to everyday life and shifts in the collective consciousness often correlate with increased violence. While that explanation was specific to Baton Rouge in 2017, the events of 2020 created chaos and trauma on a global scale.

"It's happening everywhere — Lubbock, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Shreveport," said New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher. "One common factor is the pandemic."

011021 BR Homicides 2020 map

Leaders of the BRPD union have blamed Paul and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome — a Democrat who appointed the current police chief and was recently reelected to a second term — for the high number of homicides. But Asher said such politically focused arguments don't hold water because the data show little variation in murder rates between Democratic and Republican cities across the country.

Asher compiled homicide data from 58 American cities through October 2020. His analysis showed a collective increase of about 36% over 2019 numbers, roughly the same increase seen in Baton Rouge.

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A similar analysis by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum found the following increases over 2019 data during the first nine months of 2020: a 79% increase in Louisville, a 51% increase in Chicago and an 85% increase in Minneapolis. Officials with the New Orleans Police Department recorded a 71% increase in the annual total.

Researchers with the nonprofit pointed to changes in policing that could be contributing to the nationwide increase, among other factors. Officers have become less proactive during the pandemic, heeding social distancing requirements and avoiding minor arrests to help reduce jail populations amid concerns about the virus spreading behind bars.

Some departments also experienced manpower shortages due to officers quarantining or getting sick, meaning fewer eyes on the streets. All those impacts apply to Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies.

But there's another reason, some researchers said, which has only been exacerbated since the killing of George Floyd prompted nationwide protests against police brutality, culminating in calls from some activists and politicians to "defund the police." Floyd was pronounced dead after being pinned down for eight minutes with a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck. 

"Many cops … have become more cautious about their activities," Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote in a November memo. "Why? Because they're concerned about a legitimate arrest becoming contentious, and a video going viral without any context, and political leaders quickly weighing in."

Paul noted that the protests in Baton Rouge remained largely peaceful, but he said BRPD officers are not exempt from feeling those concerns, which can result in a reluctance to engage in proactive patrols. "I'm gonna be honest about the state of policing," he said. "The George Floyd incident happened hundreds of miles away but the impacts made their way to our front door."

Experts also argue such incidents erode public trust in law enforcement agencies, making people more likely to take justice into their own hands.

Meanwhile, heavy caseloads have long been an issue for BRPD homicide detectives, who struggle to keep up with the pace of killings even during more peaceful years. The department currently has 12 homicide detectives, officials said. Those 12 are sharing 98 murder cases from 2020, according to Advocate records. But Paul said the department is in the process of expanding its homicide unit, adding three new detectives in the coming months.

Homicide detectives also investigate some serious nonfatal shootings, fatal overdoses — which have skyrocketed this year — and other suspicious deaths in Baton Rouge. At least three fatal overdoses resulted in second-degree murder arrests, a rare occurrence under a state law that seeks to hold dealers accountable for overdose deaths.

011021 BR homicides per month 2020

Increase in domestic violence

One of the most striking trends in the 2020 data is an increase in domestic violence homicides, which more than quadrupled from 2019. There were 19 domestic violence homicides in 2020, about 17% of the annual total.

Experts agree that the pandemic played a critical role in exacerbating existing abuse.

Trapped at home with their abusers in the early days of the statewide lockdown, victims faced increasingly dangerous and volatile situations where violence continued to escalate.

"What COVID did is create the perfect environment for domestic violence to flourish," said Mariah Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It increased the isolation. In a lot of ways, COVID-19 did an abuser's work for them."

In another dark twist, when the first round of stimulus checks showed up, fights over how to spend the money often resulted in violence, according to Melanie Fields, an East Baton Rouge prosecutor.

A similar trend emerged in 2017. That year saw 14 domestic violence homicides, according to Moore, the district attorney. He said officials feared a repeat as soon as the pandemic started ramping up in March — "and unfortunately, that came true."

While officials noted little change in the number of domestic violence misdemeanors reported in 2020, more serious violent crimes increased significantly. Fields said these are hard to ignore because someone usually ends up in the hospital.

"It seemed this year that the level of violence committed against women has been much higher," Moore said. "That is, the brutality of it has seemed to increase this year."

A wake-up call

Baton Rouge officials have taken steps to curb the violence, though their efforts are largely hampered by social distancing requirements and other pandemic complications.

The anti-violence nonprofit TRUCE, which works closely with the District Attorney's Office and focuses on mentoring kids, hosted a series of virtual conversations with former LSU football player Tyrann Mathieu, who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. Mathieu said he knows "how easy it can be to go down the wrong path" and wants to help young people avoid those pitfalls.

East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced in September her plans to use $2.5 million in federal CARES Act funds to launch a comprehensive anti-violence initiative that will give money to existing social service organizations while simultaneously establishing a new program involving "violence interrupters" — often former gang members and drug dealers who have grown up and left the streets — to mentor youth and prevent senseless killings.

Paul and other law enforcement leaders have also worked to strengthen their relationship with the public, at times pleading with residents to come forward with information to help officers prevent violence before it occurs.

The police chief's message was loud and clear when he spoke at a news conference following the shooting death of a toddler in October. Without some level of cooperation and trust, Paul said, the shootings will continue: "It's the same story."

Lo'Quishia Thomas, the mother of 2-year-old shooting victim Azariah Thomas, said she too hopes her tragic loss becomes "a wake-up call to the world" — for members of the public and the entire justice system, including law enforcement agencies. "We should all do better to prevent this happening again," she said in a recent interview. 

Her son celebrated his second birthday on the Fourth of July, three months before his death. The "Baby Shark"-themed party was a huge success, Thomas said.

Azariah was energetic and intelligent, "a little character," she said. He already knew his ABCs and could count to 20. His favorite colors were blue and red.

He was killed during a domestic violence rampage when Kendrick Myles allegedly shot into the house where Thomas and Azariah lived with other relatives. Thomas said she was holding her son when gunfire blasted into the room. She tried to shield him with her body, but one of the bullets ricocheted off a dresser and struck him in the back.

Thomas, who recently graduated from nursing school, performed CPR on her only child while he took his last breaths.

The alleged killer didn't stop to survey the damage that night. Instead, Myles continued leading police on a chase through Baton Rouge. The pursuit ended with a long standoff and ultimately his arrest, which came too late for Azariah.

"I'm glad nobody else got tormented, and maybe some justice will be served," she said. "But at the end of the day, the damage is done. It won't bring my son back."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.