Local law enforcement officials are working to identify domestic abusers in East Baton Rouge Parish and intervene before it's too late — part of a new initiative aimed at saving lives and reducing the high rates of domestic violence that have plagued Louisiana for decades. 

Those offenders are often men with extensive criminal histories that include a wide range of crimes not limited to prior domestic incidents. And the victims are often women living below the poverty line who have suffered past abuse, according to data collected and analyzed over the past several months.

Researchers with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice are using that data to help local authorities develop a new program called "Stop the Loss" that will implement a "focused deterrence" crime fighting strategy to target potential abusers — the same model used in the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program and its successor, Truce.

"Stop the loss of life. Stop the loss of children's innocence. Stop the loss of family," East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said during a press conference Thursday morning. "There's much work to do … but I'm certain this can be done."

Louisiana has historically ranked among the top five states for the number of women killed by men each year. East Baton Rouge Parish alone saw domestic homicides rise to 14 in 2017 — when murders in general also rose to an unprecedented level of 106 parishwide — and officials pledged to devote more resources to addressing the problem.

An annual report from the District Attorney's Office released Thursday shows that domestic violence decreased overall in 2018, including seven intentional and unjustified killings. That reduction brought the numbers closer to what local officials consider average. 

"But even one homicide is one too many," Moore said. "Intimate partner violence is not only senseless but completely preventable. … The single most important thing I can ask every citizen of Baton Rouge to do is not look away."

Domestic violence is notoriously underreported in communities everywhere, including Baton Rouge. Officials said they want people to realize the importance of reporting incidents they've witnessed or suspect, even when the victim herself doesn't want to contact law enforcement.

Moore said "Stop the Loss" will be rolled out in coming months.

The research team developing the new program is looking at where domestic violence is occurring throughout the parish and studying characteristics of victims and offenders. Moore said the incidents are concentrated in areas where crime in general is highest and violence is more common.

Researchers examined 24 domestic violence homicides in detail, finding "there was a long history of offending before the homicide happened and that (law enforcement agencies) were familiar with these incidents."

Moore highlighted in his report the August 2018 case of Gabrielle Bessix and Broderick Edwards. Edwards shot and killed Bessix, then shot at her friend before killing himself outside her home.

Bessix, who had broken off a relationship with Edwards, had called police in the months prior to her murder and reported his threatening and violent behavior toward her on multiple occasions. She received a protective order against him just days before her death.

Moore wrote that Bessix did everything right: "Call the police — make a report. Tell somebody. Call a friend. She did all of that. But in this case, there was no organized system in place to identify Mr. Edwards as an abuser — to either offer him services toward change, or proceed with prosecution." 

Authorities hope "Stop the Loss" will help prevent similar tragic outcomes.

The program outlines a tiered system for classifying potential domestic abusers. Authorities then choose how to respond, which could range from offering community resources to bringing felony charges, depending on the seriousness of the offense and the suspect's criminal record. 

Both East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul expressed their support of the program, which they said will allow local law enforcement agencies to present a united front in the fight against domestic violence. 

"It's really exciting because … we're all on the same page, collectively coming together to address these issues," Paul said. "Because at the end of the day that's what it's all about — prevention.

"We know that there are loved ones, relatives, friends who had prior knowledge before these incidents happened. And we want you to come forward. We need you to come forward. You can save a life. … Don't be silent."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.