Mary Thomas used to admire the freshly painted houses overlooking green grass and trimmed hedges in her Fairfields neighborhood. She loved watching the children play outside.

That was 32 years ago. When Thomas and her husband moved to their Plank Road apartment, it was a nice place to live, a neighborhood that she was proud to call home.

Now the lawn outside her building has turned to mud, littered with empty beer cans and overturned plastic chairs. Other families have moved elsewhere, leaving behind blighted properties and dilapidated houses. Violent crime is a persistent threat, and one that has touched Thomas' own family.

Her grandson was shot and killed in a 2015 triple homicide outside the B's Seafood convenience store about a block from her house — the same place her nephew was gunned down less than two years later. 

The Fairfields neighborhood where Thomas lives is one of several across Baton Rouge that researchers have labeled "very high risk" for homicides based on geographical factors. That approach is gaining traction among criminologists who have started focusing more on where crimes occur in addition to who's involved.

Baton Rouge crime data shows that killings happen most often in areas with a high concentration of blighted properties close to a convenience store.

Experts say fixing environmental problems offers a relatively cheap and effective way to discourage violence. And now local officials are planning to expand their efforts to address blight in Baton Rouge, hoping crime reduction will follow.

Thomas, 72, said she'd move out of her neighborhood tomorrow if she could afford to do so.

"This place is so rundown and it's got violence everywhere," she said. "I want something better."

'Forecasting homicide'

Research has long shown that crime is not distributed evenly across communities. It's highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods — or blocks or street corners — and almost nonexistent in others.

The same goes for blighted properties.

Researchers from LSU and the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office noticed that correlation and used a software program to test their theory. They found that the concentration of blighted properties and the presence of convenience stores could be used to predict where future homicides are most likely to occur.

Those "very high risk" areas are scattered across the city with pockets in some neighborhoods long known for frequent violence. The researchers specifically identified high risk areas in parts of the Brookstown, Fairfields, Istrouma, Old South Baton Rouge and Scotlandville neighborhoods.

Researchers also found the risk of homicide becomes about 13 times higher within a few blocks of blighted properties. The findings were published in December in the academic journal "Social Science Research."

And the study — titled "Forecasting homicide in the red stick: Risk terrain modeling and the spatial influence of urban blight on lethal violence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana" — notes it's the first to explore the relationship between specifically homicides and "the novel environmental risk factor" of blighted properties. 

Stephen Martinez, an investigator with the district attorney's office, conducted the study alongside LSU researchers Matt Valasik and Elizabeth Brault. He said their findings represent "a new way of looking at crime" in Baton Rouge.

The researchers point to several explanations, including that vacant lots and abandoned buildings can provide spaces for people to engage in criminal activities with less fear of being detected and caught.

The study also notes that a high concentration of blight lowers property values among surrounding homes, ultimately "reducing a neighborhood's equity and wealth."

"Furthermore as distressed properties and crime proliferate, an outward flow of residents occurs, usually to surrounding communities," researchers wrote. "The cumulative results of crime and violence can produce an environment that is not conducive to economic development."

Streets in decline

Mary Thomas grew up in south Baton Rouge, the daughter of a Baptist minister and one of 12 siblings. She graduated from McKinley High School in 1965 and married Willie Thomas two years later.

He worked as an auto mechanic for nearly a half a century until a vehicle ran over him on the job in 2013, leaving him disabled. 

The couple never had any children of their own, but raised about a dozen over the years: The first was just nine months old when his mother gave him up because she was using drugs. Others were the children of relatives who grew up in the Thomases' home.

Mary Thomas remembers letting her kids walk themselves to the school bus and play outside with their friends in the neighborhood off Plank Road where she still lives. 

Now when her grandchildren visit, she makes sure they're supervised whenever they leave the house and worries about stray bullets piercing the walls at night. Her nephew and grandson were two of six people killed at the same nearby intersection in less than two years. 

"You never know who's got a gun and who don't," she said. "All these youngsters are getting killed. They don't fight anymore, they just shoot."

Thomas said she's watched the area become more rundown as job opportunities have declined. She said people just don't have the money to maintain their houses and in some cases landlords continue renting places that are in dire need of repairs.

Thomas isn't convinced that cleaning up blighted properties would solve the crime problem, but she's hoping something changes before more people lose their lives on her block.

People and places

The 'Forecasting homicide' study found that about one quarter of Baton Rouge homicides in 2017 occurred within "very high risk" areas, which cover only 3 percent of the city's physical landscape. The number of homicides in the parish spiked that year to a historic 106 killings. 

Experts argue that studying the spaces where crimes are occurring is an important step. 

"Over last 25 years or so, there's been a change, an additional way of thinking about crime," said David Weisburd, a professor of criminology at George Mason University in northern Virginia. "It used to be about 'who done it' and we tried to find the person. Now people are getting interested in where, and why it was done at this place."

Weisburd, who has spent decades studying where crimes occur, said the key is focusing on micro units of place: small street segments that allow researchers to pinpoint problem "hotspots."

"One of great failings of police agencies is focusing on a whole neighborhood and saturating all the streets," he said. "People in that neighborhood now feel like they live in a police state, even though there's probably only a few streets where crime is occurring."

Studies conducted in several large cities have found that 50 percent of crime is committed on about 5 percent of streets. Similarly, about 5 percent of people commit 50 percent of crimes. 

Weisburd noted that studying places doesn't mean ignoring the individuals committing crimes. He said addressing the problem from both angles is most effective, as long as "we keep thinking small, not generalizing in terms of where crime is occurring and who's involved." 

Moving forward

Research shows that reducing blight can be effective in curbing violence. A 2016 study out of Philadelphia also concluded that the investments actually save taxpayers money, in part because fewer people become involved with the criminal justice system.

"Are you trying to apprehend someone who's committed a crime or are you trying to prevent crime before it happens? If you're trying to prevent crime, it's much more effective and cheaper and easier to focus on places than people," said Jim Bueermann, a policing consultant and former president of the nonprofit National Police Foundation. "Controlling crime is not always about putting more cops on the problem."

Local leaders have bought into that idea since the LSU research has brought it to light.

"How can we fund the repair that needs to take place and the change that needs to take place?" said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. "That's what we're giving some thought to now." 

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has made it a priority of her administration to address a long backlog of blighted properties across the city, citing homeowners for code violations and demolishing dilapidated buildings.

She said officials are prioritizing properties with the highest number of both 911 and 311 calls, which is the number residents can call to report possible building code violations. 

"These are environments that seem to breed criminal activity," she said. "This is all part of the holistic approach we're taking to address violence in our city. … When you have the community vested, and when people become stakeholders in their own neighborhoods, we know that will have a positive impact on crime."

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.