A reserve police officer dies after he's run over in a Walmart parking lot while approaching a suspect. An LSU basketball player is gunned down during a fight just hours before what would have been the first official practice of his junior year. And a first-grader gets shot in the head while playing outside with a group of other children in his neighborhood.

These were among the 87 homicides that occurred across East Baton Rouge Parish in 2018.

"I'm living a hell of a reality," Leteisha Holliday, mother of Jahiem Holliday, said in an interview two months after her smiling 6-year-old became the latest victim of Baton Rouge gun violence. The suspected shooter was a boy just 13 years old.

"We're making it, but it's a struggle," she said. "It will never be OK."

The killings in 2018 included an unusual number of tragic outlier cases like Jahiem's that left residents and law enforcement leaders desperate for solutions — as they sought to curb the violence and avoid a repeat of 2017, when homicides reached a record high of 106 parishwide.

The year ended with an 18 percent decrease in overall killings, but law enforcement officials still aren't proclaiming victory as the region's murder rate remains well above the national average.

"I'm not proud of the numbers. I think we can do a lot better," said Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul. "I don't call that a success, I call that progress."

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As the community continues to recover from tensions that arose after the 2016 fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, Paul said he has seen residents more willing, especially in high-profile cases, to come forward with information to help detectives get suspected killers off the streets. 

"Our police officers are doing their part to understand the community that they serve … and are engaging the community in a positive way," said Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. "But our murder rate is still unacceptable and our work is far from over."

Murder rate still among top

Though a significant improvement over 2017, the 2018 numbers brought the parish closer to what could be considered average in Baton Rouge, based on data collected over the past decade — yet still well above a dip in 2016 which saw 62 killings for the year.

The vast majority of 2018's homicides occurred within city limits.

The Advocate tracks homicides, which are killings that law enforcement have deemed intentional and unjustified, recording them by the year in which they occurred. These numbers have been checked with data provided by local law enforcement agencies but could change in the future after new evidence or rulings.

Homicides during the first six months of 2018 outpaced 2017, which set an ominous tone for the year. But criminologists continued to predict that peace was likely on the horizon, and that proved to be the case as an unusual drop in violence extended through the summer months, the season when homicide numbers typically rise.

A single killing in October — nearly an anomaly in the context of Baton Rouge crime rates — preceded a violent November, which ended the summer's peaceful stretch with 14 people killed across the parish. A quadruple shooting in November left three dead outside a convenience store on Gus Young Avenue. Law enforcement leaders reacted with alarm and deployed more officers as a result, and December ended the year with fewer killings.

Several other cities across the country also saw homicides fall in 2018 as violent crime trended downward nationally. Chicago experienced a 15 percent drop, and killings in New Orleans fell to the lowest number in 47 years

Some experts have attributed the downward trend nationwide 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.

"The one explanation that seems appropriate to me is that the tensions between disadvantaged minority communities and police that arose in the aftermath of police violence — and Baton Rouge was right at the center of that storm — those tensions have cooled somewhat," said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld. 

The murder rate in the city of Baton Rouge remains one of the nation's highest when accounting for the city's population. In 2018, the homicide rate was 35 per 100,000 people, which is higher than Chicago's and about seven times the national average of just five per 100,000. New Orleans is higher at 37 per 100,000, despite recording its lowest year of murder in decades.

"Louisiana has (historically) led the nation in murder rate," said New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher. "There's nothing in the data that suggests that's going to come to an end in 2019, and having Baton Rouge with a reasonably high murder rate is not particularly surprising."

Solving homicides: almost 50/50

By the end of 2018, Baton Rouge police had solved about 53 percent of the homicides that occurred within city limits this past year — up from 47 percent at the end of 2017.

But taking a broader look at the department's clearance rate — and accounting for cold case homicides solved in addition to recent cases — data shows that the city's detectives have solved, on average, around 60 percent of cases over the past decade, about the national average. Baton Rouge police said that in addition to the 53 percent of 2018 homicides, they also cleared nine murders from prior years.

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Cases are considered cleared by police when a suspect is identified and an arrest has been made or authorities conclude an arrest is impossible, most often because the suspect has died.

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.

"When a city's clearance rate falls below 50 percent, it usually experiences a rising homicide rate," said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project. "People are more likely to be murdered. That is simply common sense — if (you) allow most of your killers to go uncaught, why would it stop?"

Hargrove said Baton Rouge's increased clearance rate from 2017 to 2018 is a step in the right direction. 

Paul, Baton Rouge's police chief, acknowledged that victims' families experience pain and frustration when police fail to solve crimes committed against their loved ones. But he also pointed out that he has added additional homicide detectives to a unit that he said had been woefully understaffed. The ranks of detectives has been increased from nine when Paul took office to 13, although still far from the recommended caseload.

"We're doing everything in our power to solve these crimes," Paul said. "In many of these homicides that have been unsolved, we believe there's somebody out there that has information (and) we need those individuals to come forward."

Department leaders also created the new position of victim assistance coordinator in 2018, seeking to provide additional support to crime victims and their families during what are sometimes frustratingly long investigations.

Among cases from 2018 that remain unsolved is the November triple homicide on Gus Young Avenue. Benjamin Ragusa, who owns the convenience store where it happened, said he feels the police should do more to help business owners combat crime in the neighborhood, starting with an arrest in that case.

Ragusa described instances where his employees call police after witnessing a suspected crime in the area — and then wait over an hour for officers to respond.

"I don't think they're doing enough," said Wanda Thomas, a store employee. "I don't think they're cracking down."

Breakdown of the numbers

It's difficult to identify common threads among the homicides of 2018, especially so soon after the year's end, but some noteworthy trends stand out.

Almost all the homicide victims were killed in shootings — more than 90 percent — and the vast majority of the victims were black males at just over 80 percent. About 15 percent were women, one of whom was transgender. Their average age was 33.

Authorities said many of the 2018 homicides were conflicts that escalated from social connections or disagreements, but said there was an overall drop in organized group or gang violence. Some also involved drug transactions or retaliation.

An unusually high number of juveniles — 11 in total, all but one younger than 17 — were arrested as the perpetrators in eight different homicide cases this past year.

The number of domestic violence killings was almost half the number from 2017, decreasing from 14 to eight. But Paul noted still too many people were killed inside homes or right outside, almost 40 percent of citywide cases.

The past year also saw some evident changes in where people were killed. One of the city's two ZIP codes where violent crime has historically been most common, 70805, experienced a more than 50 percent drop in homicides. The region, which extends from Choctaw Drive north to Airline Highway and west to the Mississippi River, saw 25 killings in 2017 and just 12 in 2018.

But in the 70802 area, which is typically the city's other hub for violent crime extending from north Baton Rouge into downtown and south along the river, the numbers showed no change with 22 killings for both years.

And in 70808, the region surrounding Interstate 10 near College Drive and Perkins Road where crime is typically low, homicides increased by seven in 2018 — up from the one in 2017. They include two women killed by former dating partners and someone shot while driving on the interstate. 

Law enforcement ruled 11 killings from 2018 justified, typically because they were carried out in self-defense. Those cases include the fatal shooting of Shermichael Ezeff, 31, who was killed when an East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's deputy shot him during a struggle outside Ezeff's apartment.

The July incident where a security guard shot Derrick Johnson, 40, outside a Florida Boulevard hookah lounge was similarly ruled justified. Another shooting authorities said appears justified involved two LSU football players who fatally shot an 18-year-old after he pulled a gun on them.

Officials also determined three killings to be negligent, all cases in which family or friends were playing with guns or attempting to shoot something else, but struck someone nearby instead. The perpetrators in those cases were all arrested on negligent homicide.

Moving forward

Authorities say they hope to continue to improve community police relations and implement plans to better respond to cycles of violence in 2019.

Paul also said the department will build on its use of technology and data to target the small group of people responsible for most of the city's violent crime.

Baton Rouge police began tracking nonfatal shootings last year. Their work will become part of a larger initiative stemming from a grant that authorities recently obtained focusing on gun violence and including local, state and federal partners.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the grant will help fund a gun crime rapid response team and intelligence center, allowing police to respond more quickly and thoroughly to shootings, even if no one was injured. Moore said he hopes the new initiative will give authorities a better understanding of gun violence as a whole, which could continue to bring down homicide numbers.

"I like the number better than (2017) but it's still not a good number," Moore said. "We're always optimistic starting a new year and I hope that 2019 is even better."

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.