New jail, mental health center top East Baton Rouge DA’s list to curb crime

The Advocate

Members of the Baton Rouge business community pledged money to reboot the city’s anti-gang program Friday, while criminal justice leaders issued a report calling for larger community investment in expensive projects like a new jail and center to treat the mentally ill.

The public safety officials — a group that included BRPD Chief Murphy Paul, East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and District Attorney Hillar Moore III, along with Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome — met privately with business leaders Friday afternoon. Several agreed to commit $540,000 to fund a new group violence elimination program that could start by June to pick up where the BRAVE program left off, said business developer Mike Wampold, who has pledged money to the effort.

Wampold, Jim Bernhard, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber together agreed to provide the money to get the new program going, he said.

“This isn’t just a business decision,” Wampold said. “This is safety of our people. My children. My family.”

Spearheaded by Moore, with sections written by various agency heads, the report calls for revival of a BRAVE-like program, while also revisiting several ideas that have been touted in the past, but failed to gain enough traction to move forward. These included some expensive proposals, such as building a new jail and juvenile complex, as well as moving forward with a special center to specifically help mentally ill people picked up by police.

The report is billed as an effort to gather ideas from criminal justice leaders about initiatives to tackle the homicide rate, which crept to a historic high in 2017, as well as crime in general.

Moore said the leaders wanted to show the community that they know what their issues are and how to solve them before pitching to them on how they can help. One of the suggestions in the report is to increase investment in technology, such as expanding crime cameras and coverage of the ShotSpotter network, which alerts law enforcement when microphones pick up the firing of a gun.

While private sector donors are able to fill in the gaps for a program like BRAVE and possibly contribute to other crime-fighting technologies, their money realistically can’t be a solution to bigger ticket items like a new juvenile complex, BRAF President and CEO John Davies said.

“If you need to have license plate readers, if you need to have ShotSpotters … there is a price to that. It’s kind of semi-reasonable,” Davies said. “It is a capital expense you think that … the city needs to come up with, but the private sector can do that. Philanthropy can help.”

Moore addressed the problem of funding the larger projects in the report, saying that it will required a long-term plan, but “we have to start somewhere.”

In reviving a group violence reduction program, Baton Rouge officials brought in national expert on the topic, New York-based professor David Kennedy, who works at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Kennedy explained that he thinks the problem with a program like BRAVE, which started in 2012, is that people think they know how it works and “dislodging those dumb ideas out of their heads turns out to be extremely difficult.” That’s why he took his first visit to Baton Rouge on Friday to explain it to the business leaders himself, rather than just communicating remotely with the law enforcement leaders.

“It’s really not a community problem in the way we look at it,” Kennedy said of group violence and homicides. “Any city has a very, very small number of very highly active groups that drive the violence and through the previous BRAVE effort those have already been identified here.”

He further explained that those people, who should be seen as at-risk victims, should be offered more social services in order to help them and stop the violence. He said that small number of people “would be safer on the ground serving (with the) military in Afghanistan than they are walking on their street.”

Moore picked up on that, saying that the new program they will implement will blur the line more between law enforcement and services so that they’re “not the next killer or the victim.”

Despite the dismantling of BRAVE after a federal grant expired last year, the leaders were adamant that the strategies employed by the initiative really work and pointed to the spike in homicides as the program ended as proof of that.

As the BRAVE program came to close, it became clear that it failed to follow through on some goals, such as the number of youth they wanted to help. Almost $1 million in federal funds went unspent. And while the number of homicides and other crimes dropped in the BRAVE’s initial years, those numbers rose again at the end of the program.

Gautreaux said Friday that the August 2016 flood and high-profile shootings “threw us all back,” but now they are getting back on track.

The report advocates filling vacancies in the Baton Rouge Police Department and East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, saying these openings are hurting the ability to fully staff uniform patrol and investigative units. The report says there are currently 105 sheriff vacancies and 60 open spots at the BRPD.

In the call for replacing the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and juvenile complexes, the report notes they are outdated facilities. In previous years, the Metro Council has balked at moving forward with a $250 million bond package for those replacements.

In 2016, voters rejected a property tax to pay $5 million a year for a center to serve as a mental health triage, which proponents said would keep mentally ill people out of jail.

The report also recommends using a “targeted illegal gun strategy” to slow gun violence and robberies in neighborhoods plagued by crime and  a real-time crime center.

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