A year ago, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore had taken a quick business trip to Boston and was at church on Sunday morning when his phone started buzzing with text messages.
They were chaotic, saying one officer was down, multiple officers were shot, six officers were killed.
By the time he was able to scramble a charter back to Baton Rouge, the district attorney learned that three officers were assassinated and three others injured before gunman Gavin Long had been killed.
He remembered those travails during the process of preparing an in-depth report on the shootings and then appearing at memorials last weekend.
But if Baton Rouge suffered so dramatically, there are nevertheless reasons for optimism, in part because of the way the community — riven by officers’ shooting Alton Sterling last July 5 — came together in dealing with tragedy. “Any time you have an officer-involved shooting, it can be difficult for a community,” Moore said, but people put aside their differences in a time of troubles.
Weeks later, disastrous flooding compelled the community to come together once again. In August 2016, there were no murders in East Baton Rouge Parish.
That’s not the norm, obviously. Moore told the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday that the law enforcement community is working on the recent uptick in killings, including more domestic violence incidents.
Challenges, though, abound — including the division between officers and the community.
Moore is a strong supporter of the BRAVE initiative that targeted young gang offenders in some inner-city neighborhoods, where a small minority has terrorized others. “We can’t do this without the support of the community,” he said.
BRAVE has worked, although future funding for the effort is problematic: “We have seen that group murders are still on the decline,” Moore said, but “if you ever take your foot off that, it will come right back.”
He said law enforcement is looking for ways to use BRAVE methods to target the drug trade, often the source of deadly encounters, but domestic violence is also a scourge: about 20 victims a week are asking his office to drop charges against abusers, for various reasons.
Moore has been one of the foremost advocates of better treatment for substance abuse and mental illness that clogs the parish prison.
He said a MacArthur Foundation grant will pay some of the cost of hiring a jail administrator who can help steer to other options those who can be safely released. A former staffer in the New Orleans Public Defenders Office has been hired with a similar grant to work in the city jail there.
Moore said local officials, including Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and acting chief administrative officer Jim Llorens, are working on a funding package for the diversion program, but the first hire was delayed because an early candidate for the position backed out.
And after all, where do police take the mentally disturbed who must be arrested? Moore backed a millage to create a Bridge Center for these cases, but the Dec. 10 tax proposition failed by a small margin.
It makes no financial sense to have the jail overcrowded, forcing the parish to spend $8 million to $10 million on housing prisoners elsewhere, when alternative treatment of some offenders would be more useful, Moore said.
Still, resources are at a premium. He said both Baton Rouge police and the Sheriff’s Office have fewer officers than they would like, even as killings have increased. “We are not happy about where we are with the numbers,” Moore said.
“Louisiana,” he added, “is at the top of every list of the drivers of crime.”
Stephanie Desselle: Retiring after more than 20 years at the Council for a Better Louisiana, she has made an indelible mark on state policy, particularly in education, but also through her role in growing the Leadership Louisiana program. Experience suggests that she will continue to make suggestions even if no longer on the CABL staff.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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