The newest organization aimed at reducing Baton Rouge gun violence was born just last week after Stafford Williams was gunned down in broad daylight outside the car wash he owned on Scenic Highway. 

Williams, 48, had been a familiar face in the Scotlandville neighborhood where he spent his life. News of his death prompted some of his old friends to act, and the result was 911 SAVE OUR SONS.

The organization is one of several that Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul highlighted during a news conference Thursday afternoon addressing an uptick in deadly gun violence over the past few months.

"It's a cycle that must be broken," he said, referencing a culture of violence that "has been in this community for far too long." The public announcement at BRPD headquarters was a warning and call to action for Baton Rouge residents.

"Tell your son not to kill my son, and I'll tell my son not to kill your son. Tell your daddy not to kill my daddy, and I'll tell my daddy not to kill your daddy," said Shelia Parker, one of the founders of SOS. "We are here to make an impact in our communities. We're here to bring forth change."

Homicides are on the rise across Baton Rouge, with 2020 threatening to become the parish's most murderous year on record based on crime data collected during the first six months. The numbers have local officials worried about the months to come, especially since the coronavirus pandemic and resulting financial crisis don't appear to be fading away.

Paul said he believes the added stress and anxiety are fueling increased violence both in Baton Rouge and in other cities nationwide.

Gun violence often surges during the summer months when people are spending more time outside, temperatures are rising and children are on vacation from school. But that surge appears to have started earlier than usual because the pandemic has upended normal life.

When Williams was killed June 30, his death marked the fourth Baton Rouge homicide in four days.

Cleve Dunn Jr., another founding member of SOS, said that loss hit home because he grew up with Williams, whose dad was the neighborhood veterinarian. Dunn said he envisions the organization acting as a mediator to help bring peaceful resolution to conflicts that could otherwise escalate into shots fired.

Organizers also emphasized the need for support services to give people an alternative to violence, connecting them with educational and job opportunities, showing that a different outcome is possible and within reach.

Domestic violence incidents, including homicides, have also increased in recent months. 

John Price, executive director of Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge, said crisis calls and service requests to his organization have increased during the pandemic. Orders to stay home and limit travel can be dangerous for victims who become trapped in close quarters with their abusers.

"Domestic violence is real in our community," said Twahna Harris, who founded The Butterfly Society in Baton Rouge. She quoted a survivor who once told her: "I didn't run to domestic violence — I woke up in it." 

Other anti-violence advocates spoke during the news conference about the importance of treating gun violence as a public health crisis, instead of focusing solely on the law enforcement response. 

"The Baton Rouge Police Department cannot do this alone. That is an unrealistic expectation," Paul said. "Crime is a socioeconomic issue and it is bigger than law enforcement."

Paul has consistently called for increased cooperation from the public to help police prevent and solve crime through tips and witness accounts since he took office in 2018. He's also pushed to reform the department, including through increased rollout of body cameras, changes to policies and the internal discipline process, and training that emphasizes fairness and respect in interactions with the public.

Paul said since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, other law enforcement agencies are pursuing similar reforms, which have become a national talking point in recent weeks.

He also said that people who find themselves falling into a life of crime should take note of the support and services available to them.

"Help is right behind me right now," Paul said, gesturing to the community leaders who spoke at his news conference. "Take them up on their offer."

Other groups represented include: Cities UnitedThe BRidge Agency, Inc. and Community Healing and Nurturing Growth through Edification or CHANGE, which is hosting a solidarity march against violence next Saturday, July 18, starting at 8:30 a.m. outside City Hall.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.