With the arrival of summer's notorious bloody months and the now-defunct anti-violence initiative BRAVE in the rear-view mirror, Baton Rouge's law enforcement officials are embracing a new method for violence intervention: showing up unannounced to the homes of those they believe are linked to the violence.
These home visits, coined "custom notifications" by researchers with the National Network for Safe Communities based in New York, are set up to demonstrate to these people — on a very personal level — that law enforcement is aware of their ties to potential violence, to warn them of the consequences of such violence and to offer them support if they choose a different path, said Baton Rouge Police Deputy Chief Herbert "Tweety" Anny.
"Not only are we putting him on notice, … we are giving him alternatives to this plan of violence," Anny said. "We know that this is a tool that’s been used by the National Network for Safe Communities, and it’s been proven effective."
A crime fighting model developed in the 1990s by renowned criminologist David Kennedy, who later founded the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, drove much of the strategy behind BRAVE — newly coined Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination when it came to the Capital City — which focused on juveniles involved in gang or "group" violence in the city's two high-crime zip codes, 70802 and 70805, from 2012 through 2017. Most notably, BRAVE invited certain youth identified through crime data analysis to "call-ins," where parish leaders preached a simple message: put down your guns and, instead, take advantage of these services.
Five years ago, an unusually bloody summer forced Baton Rouge leaders into a scramble to stem a homicide rate that was outpacing Chicago's.
Now, about five years after BRAVE's kickoff and just months after BRAVE's public and messy collapse, city officials have formally hired the lead researchers of the National Network for Safe Communities to guide their work as they reboot much of BRAVE's mission through a new nonprofit called Truce — and take a similar message used by BRAVE to families' at their front doors.
"We’re here and we want to offer you some kind of help," said Truce Executive Director Aishala Burgess, a former assistant district attorney with the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office. "That personal aspect of custom notification really goes a long way."
Working collaboratively with Truce, the District Attorney's Office, the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office are hoping to improve BRAVE by focusing more on the services aspect of Truce, but also by increasing these custom notification trips to, quite literally, bring home their mission of anti-violence.
Kennedy said the custom notifications are being used extensively in Chicago, where they are seeing results through a high number of targeted juveniles accepting services that will steer them away from a life of crime. And, he said, the method has proven effective in many other cities, including Boston, over the last two decades in reducing crime and recidivism.
Anny said in Baton Rouge, officials will deploy two types of home visits. One will be led by a SWAT team from either the Baton Rouge Police Department's Special Response Team or the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office Special Community Anti-Crime Team. They will be used when officials have determined there is an immediate threat or danger. This would come in the form of someone who is about to commit a violent act, often in retaliation, or perhaps to someone who might be the target of such an attack. Anny said in early June, law enforcement have already conducted about 10 of these visits.
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The second type of home visit will occur when someone is on an official's radar, perhaps caught up in a web of crime, but without specific intelligence about an imminent threat, Anny said. For that type of custom notification, a more community-based group would visit the home, led by a community-policing officer along with a recognizable public figure like Chief Murphy Paul, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux or District Attorney Hillar Moore III, as well as a faith-based leader and a social service representative, like a Truce case worker.
However, for both, Anny said, the message will remain relatively constant.
"'You’re valuable to us. We don’t want anything to happen to you but violence is not going to be tolerated,'" Moore said. "'What can we do to help you?'"
While Moore was a proponent of BRAVE's call-ins, which could still happen down the line with Truce, the customized visits can be more effective, he said. They no longer rely on the juveniles to accept the invitation to show up. Officials make a point to find them at their home, and it allows more family members to be looped in on the chat. Also, law enforcement can come prepared with personalized information about the target to grab their attention, hopefully shock them into listening, Anny said.
"The hard part to this is actually locating the person, knowing where they are, and catching them with a family member," Moore said. But, he said, when it happens, it is successful, especially with a relative who can further reinforce the message.
And, Moore noted, unlike BRAVE's specific focus on two zip codes, officials this time around are willing and able to extend their custom notifications to anyone who could benefit, though their focus will remain on youth in groups.
“We’re not going to turn anyone down," Moore said.
Anny said he's hopeful that the community can also help them identify certain people to target with the custom notifications, those who might be a threat or on the verge of violence. He said too often at a homicide scene, people will come up and say they knew what was going to transpire but are reacting, when instead they could have been proactive.
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“We’re trying to get the community to contact us through Crime Stoppers, inform us of anybody they may know who is planning to commit a violent crime," Anny said. “We have resources to help and intervene — before the crime."
Anny was clear that this method is not being used to unfairly monitor or arrest people. He said the visits are only done when there's credible, vetted intelligence that the person could be linked to violent crime, but at the same time it does not mean the person is facing criminal charges or becomes part of a criminal investigation. He said it's simply alerting them to consequences if they engage in violent crime and offering them a way out.
"We just need to make sure we don’t blur the line of assistance and jail … which was an issue with BRAVE,” Moore said. He said they want to separate their goals and ensure that services for the youth come first, and arrests would only come after someone engages in a violent crime, despite their personal warning.
The focus with Truce is on that assistance, Burgess said, which can come in the form of job placement and training, educational support, substance abuse or mental health treatment, all of which they are equipped to provide.
Burgess said Truce now has 16 active clients, with about 20 on the waiting list. However, she said, the hyper-individualized services means clients remain with the program for various periods of time, so slots are constantly opening up. She said she is confident, at this point, Truce can serve all those interested in help, and hopes the interest continues to grow as the frequency of custom notifications increases.
"We’ll encourage them to get involved and also encourage them not to retaliate and not to get into any type of violence," said Capt. Rodney Walker, commander of the Sheriff's SCAT team. "Just try to be a positive voice to change the mindset. People get emotional and they react on emotions and often times it just takes a level head and have a conversation to bring young people down.”
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