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Baton Rouge Police Dept. investigators work at the scene of what appears to be double homicide on S. 16th Street under the North Blvd. overpass, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. A man and woman were found shot to death Friday afternoon under the North Boulevard overpass, and the victims appear to be homeless, Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said.

Tony Williams spent most of his adult life struggling with untreated mental illness and often found himself sleeping on the streets of Baton Rouge. Relatives said he would disappear for months but always came back to them eventually.

But it was sometime before sunrise on Dec. 27, Williams, 50, when was shot to death while resting outside a vacant house. It appears he was killed at random — the third homeless person shot "execution-style" last month in Baton Rouge following a double-homicide two weeks earlier in the same neighborhood.

Williams' killing alarmed law enforcement agencies and social service providers as investigators spent the final weeks of 2019 scrambling to find the person responsible. His death also served as a stark reminder that Baton Rouge gun violence remains well above the national average and continues to plague some of the parish's most vulnerable communities.

Authorities hoped 2019 would see a more significant decrease in killings, and that goal appeared well within reach – until violence spiked in November and remained elevated through the following month.

A total of 83 homicides occurred parishwide in 2019. That is just slightly fewer than the previous year, which itself experienced an almost 20 percent drop from 2017's record high of 106.

"Our wins may not look like enough," said Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul. "Could we do better? Absolutely. Do I want the numbers to be better? Absolutely, and I think we're headed in that direction."

Less than a week after Williams was killed, detectives arrested Jeremy Anderson, 29, who lived around the corner from both crime scenes and confessed to shooting all three victims, police said. Police have not released a motive but said there's substantial evidence pointing to Anderson.

Williams' sister, Ester Hanson, said she's still struggling to comprehend how his life was stolen "for no apparent reason" when he became a gun violence statistic.

She and other relatives spent decades supporting Williams with housing and job opportunities, but Hanson said he would never accept consistent treatment for his mental illness. Now, she can't stop thinking about the last time she saw him and the words she forgot to say — not realizing that was her last chance to tell her brother she loved him.

NUMBERS

Baton Rouge's 2019 homicide numbers are roughly in line with what could be considered average for the parish, based on data collected over the past decade. Most occurred within city limits and almost 60 percent have been solved. About 75 percent of the victims were black males.

The Advocate's tallies include only intentional and unjustified killings. These numbers have been checked against data from local law enforcement agencies, but could change in the future due to additional evidence or new rulings from police and prosecutors.

011220 BR homicides 2003-2019

The murder rate within city limits has been historically among the nation's highest when accounting for population. It decreased in 2019 but remains more than five times the national average.

Louisiana also will likely be named the country's most murderous state in 2019 — a title it's held for many years — despite a continued decline in New Orleans, where homicides reached their lowest level in almost five decades. Authorities there have credited the police department's heightened focus on a core group of repeat violent offenders and their associates, regardless of how long it takes to build cases against them — a strategy also being pursued in Baton Rouge.

"While we have seen a reduction in the number of homicides in the city of Baton Rouge for two consecutive years, I'm still not satisfied," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said during her State of the City address last Wednesday. "One homicide is one too many. … I continue to look for the continuous month when I do not receive a call from dispatch notifying me of a homicide."

That almost happened this past May, which saw an unusual low of two killings parish-wide.

In fact, the summer months — historically the most violent both here and in other cities — were uncharacteristically quiet. The number of people killed in July, August and September combined is equal to that for November alone, the parish's most violent month of 2019 that drove up the overall annual total significantly.

Authorities have struggled to explain the recent surge, attributing some of the violence to group or gang beefs, but otherwise providing little insight.

Otherwise Baton Rouge's numbers over time appear to be consistent with recent national trends.

Cities nationwide saw a spike in killings spanning 2016 and 2017, then a drop the following year. Some experts have attributed that drop to the diminishing impacts of the "Ferguson effect," the theory that both the police and the community withdraw from each other in the aftermath of police shootings, which allows crime to surge. The name comes from the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Preliminary analysis indicates the murder rate nationwide remained about the same from 2018 to 2019, although the federal government won't release its official 2019 crime stats for several months. New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher said the homicide rate in most large cities is virtually unchanged. He said any variation seems randomized, not part of a larger trend.

EXCEPTIONAL CASES

Authorities noted that East Baton Rouge's 2019 homicides included three double-murders and one triple, which drove up the numbers.

They also included several unusual cases in addition to the December killings of homeless residents — a nurse who died from injuries sustained from a patient attack, an intentional vehicle crash and the death of local civil rights icon Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who was found suffocated in the trunk of her car.

Juveniles were involved in more cases than usual, both as victims and alleged perpetrators, including several children now facing homicide charges.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he believes 2019 saw an overall decrease in the more common group violence and drug related killings that spiked in 2017, often stemming from neighborhood feuds and committed in pursuit of retaliation. But he noted that drug and gang activity continue to play a large role in Baton Rouge gun violence. 

Domestic violence killings also fell significantly from the previous year, Moore noted.

Meanwhile a larger percentage of the homicides occurred outside city limits, including the rural Zachary home invasion that left a woman tied up and shot to death inside her living room, discovered after her husband of 54 years returned home from a funeral. In another case, a baby was found to have died after overdosing on methadone and Xanax. The child's mother later confessed that she routinely gave her daughter drugs to calm her down.

Those are among the 17 homicides investigated by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, which responds to calls in unincorporated parts of the parish — up from just eight cases in 2018. The sheriff's office didn't respond to a request for comment this week. 

Homicides within city limits decreased from 79 in 2018 to 65 this past year. Data from city police also shows a substantial decrease in reports of Baton Rouge violent crime, which are down an estimated 18 percent over the previous year. 

Paul, who took office as Baton Rouge's police chief in January 2018, said those statistics are promising and give him reason to believe violence will continue declining in 2020.

One homicide was investigated by State Police.

PROACTIVE STEPS

About 52 percent of the homicides that occurred within city limits last year have been cleared, meaning law enforcement arrested a suspect or determined that an arrest is impossible, most often because the alleged perpetrator has died.

Parishwide the 2019 clearance rate came in closer to 58 percent. The national average for homicide cases has hovered around 60 percent over the past several years.

011220 BR homicide clearance rates

Research has shown that solving a higher percentage of cases is one of the best methods of deterring crime — more effective than imposing harsher punishments.

Paul praised the efforts of his officers, saying they're doing everything possible to solve more killings and bring justice to victims' families. He emphasized the importance of tips from the community.

Paul has increased the number of homicide detectives from nine to 14 since taking office, hoping to decrease their outsized caseloads and bring them closer to national standards.

Local law enforcement agencies are also continuing their targeted approach to fighting crime, focusing on the small number of people and places involved, rather than saturating whole neighborhoods.

Tracking nonfatal shootings and shots fired is another important piece of the department's strategy, he said, because in those cases "today's victim could be tomorrow's suspect" seeking retaliation. Paul started tracking those numbers in 2018, which experts agree are often a better indicator of overall gun violence trends than homicides alone.

Last year local law enforcement launched a Crime Gun Intelligence Center, which is a team of investigators who respond to all shots fired calls and conduct a thorough investigation even if no one is injured. It's partly supported with federal grant dollars and involves collaboration between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. 

The long-awaited Real Time Crime Center at BRPD headquarters, which will provide responding officers with additional intelligence and analysis, is also set to open next month. 

Paul said the biggest remaining piece of the puzzle is cooperation from residents. That goes for solving crimes after they've occurred and preventing violence in the first place. He said people who suspect their loved one might engage in violence have the power to prevent that tragic mistake by simply calling law enforcement.

"It's not a crime until it's committed," he said. "We need people to reimagine their role in stopping the violence. If you love somebody enough to pick up the phone and call police, that's how we can save lives. That's how we can change the narrative."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.