As Baton Rouge faces an unprecedented rate of murders, the city is training teams of residents to intervene before violence happens.
The "Baton Rouge Street Teams" will work in the 70802 and 70805 ZIP codes, which stretch from the edge of Scotlandville to north of LSU's campus. They include 10 participants and will take a two-prong approach: high-risk intervention to mediate conflicts as they arise, and assertive outreach, which will provide ongoing assistance to community members in need.
Aqueela Sherrills, executive director of the Community Based Public Safety Collective and training leader for the program, said the street teams won't try to substitute police presence in emergency situations. Instead, they will complement police by providing the community with someone who knows their neighborhoods and can potentially relate to them better.
"The difference is that we're just honing in people into these communities who know folks," said Sherrills. "There's no antagonistic relationship, because there's a gulf between law enforcement and community right now with all that's happening across the country."
In a training session Thursday, Sherrills and Aquil Basheer, founder of the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute, taught participants a number of protocols to follow in order to best assess a high-risk situation, minimize danger and provide the best form of care to community members.
Sherrills also directs the Newark Community Street Team, which plays a similar role within that New Jersey city. It provided much of the framework for Baton Rouge's Street Team.
In the five years following Newark's street team launch, homicides and overall crime rates reached record lows in the city, a UCLA study found.
One participant, 28-year-old Darrius Crockett, said he joined the Baton Rouge Street Team to help change his community. Outside of the program, Crockett is a husband, father of three and a rapper. He said he's nervous to go out into the field and potentially engage in life-threatening situations, but knows it's important for him to better the city and inspire his peers to do the same.
"Get ready, and get your popcorn ready," said Crocket. "We're getting ready to change our community."
The program will work with Mayor Sharon Weston-Broome's Safe, Hopeful, Healthy BR Initiative, which serves to provide resources within neighborhoods and connect people together.
“Our community is at a cross roads when it comes to addressing violence – community partnerships are essential in our path to peace," said Broome in a news release. "The Baton Rouge Street Team will utilize relationship-based strategies to intervene, prevent, and mediate conflicts to a peaceful resolution."
Officials announced the training Thursday amid an ongoing spike in gun violence and unprecedented Baton Rouge murder rate, issues that have received heightened attention in recent weeks following a series of high-profile tragedies.
Baton Rouge police recently announced the arrests of five suspects in the Memorial Day triple homicide that left a toddler, teen and young man dead after gunfire broke out during a pool party at a College Drive apartment complex. A week earlier, two gunmen jumped out of a stolen car and opened fire outside the IHOP on Siegen Lane, killing one restaurant employee and injuring another.
This week, a road rage incident escalated into shots fired, leaving one person dead behind the B-Quik convenience store on Perkins Road.
Across the parish, authorities have recorded at least 67 homicides since Jan. 1, most within city limits — a roughly 60 percent increase over the same time last year, with nearly one person killed every two days. Compare that to 2016, when the parish recorded 62 murders for the entire year, according to records maintained by The Advocate.
“Law enforcement is always working to proactively address violence in our community, but the most effective method is to empower our residents to address the underlying factors before violence occurs. I’m confident the Baton Rouge Street Team will be a strong partner in our mission to create a more peaceful community,” said BRPD Chief Murphy Paul.