Some East Baton Rouge Parish residents are nervous that the number of homicides this year might match or surpass 2017's record-breaking total of 106.
But criminologists said they believe the parish's spike in homicides already peaked in late 2017 and the parish is now on a downward turn even though the numbers are higher in the first six months of 2018 than they were during the same time period in 2017.
During the first six months of 2018 in East Baton Rouge Parish, investigators identified 48 homicides as intentional and unjustified. Forty-three of them occurred within the jurisdiction of the Baton Rouge Police Department.
That total outpaced the first six months of 2017, when there were 40 homicides in the parish, but the tally continued to increase more rapidly in the second half of 2017 when the total reached a record-breaking 106 homicides.
New Orleans-based criminologist Jeff Asher said the increase was a continuation of a spike that actually started in the second half of 2016. It was an unusually low year overall with 62 killings, but by the end of the year, the homicide rate was increasing. He said he thinks that spike may have peaked.
“Yes, things are high over the last 12 months, but it’s really a surge of violence that peaked toward the latter half of last year,” Asher said. “Things are high this year, but it has somewhat slowed down.”
Looking at monthly totals over the past three years, it’s uncommon for homicides to be evenly spread out across the year. In 2017, the numbers increased until a peak of 14 in August and 13 in September. Although there were only four killings in April this year, there were 13 in May.
If there is no surge in the second half of 2018, the total may end up being lower than last year.
“Baton Rouge may be running ahead of where it was at this point last year, but it is currently on pace to be lower than it was last year,” Asher said.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul and parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome both said the numbers so far are not ideal, but they are hopeful the violence will decrease with help from the community.
“I still believe we’re going to finish the year better,” Paul said, referring to last year. “I’m very optimistic about that. I think getting out here and asking the community to come forward, that is going to pay off these last six months.”
He specifically pointed to May, when his department investigated 12 homicides, an unusually high number. He said the department cleared nine of those cases, eight by making arrests and one because the suspect died.
“That’s because the community was coming forward, and they’re giving us information,” Paul said. "There’s 300 to 400 calls a month from Crime Stoppers, so the community is stepping up. I think they’re sick and tired of the crime that’s happening in the community.”
Clearance rates nationally and in Baton Rouge generally have hovered around 60 percent annually over the past 10 years.
Broome said she, too, is concerned about the violence, but she is focused on supporting activities, employment opportunities and outlets for conversation for young people in the community in the hopes that the initiatives can chip away at the violence.
She referenced a common phrase among Baton Rouge officials that the majority of the violence is committed by 5 percent of the population, which, she said, Paul and his department are targeting.
“Mental health is a big issue and is often a part of the equation for violence,” Broome said. “So these are issues that we have to address simultaneously while we work to reduce the numbers.”
Asher said there are many factors that contribute to crime trends.
“It sort of drives home the point that murder is intensely local and there can be lots of explanations from very mundane changes in weather … changes in community trust, changes in policing strategy, changes in local economy,” Asher said. “So there’s lots of things that can drive individual local crime trends.”
The vast majority of homicides in the parish are committed by people who know their victims, which Broome thinks sends its own message.
“The instances of domestic violence, the instance of friends who know each other, of family members and the way that they seem to resolve conflict is through violence,” Broome said. "So we need to change the trajectory, that attitude.”
One initiative Broome recently joined was a Pedaling for Peace community bike ride, organized by parish Metro Councilman LaMont Cole.
“This is one of our demonstrations as leaders, as citizens in the community, to say that we are advocates for peace,” Broome said. "And we want you to join us.”