In 2012, 67 lost their lives at the hands of another on the streets of Baton Rouge. That year, rocked by a wave of violent crime, the city was among the ten most murderous areas in the United States, a fact eastbound I-12 drivers confronted in capital letters on their daily commute by a billboard reading: “BR MURDER RATE HIGHER THAN CHICAGO.”
That sign no longer stands. The city’s homicidal tide is turning, and its flagship university is charting the course.
Murder rates in the metro area fell by more than 20 percent in 2013, the first full year of the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination (BRAVE) program. A joint partnership of the office of Mayor-President Kip Holden and District Attorney Hillar Moore, BRAVE was founded in 2012 to combat the city’s surge in homicides.
City and university officials gathered at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication last week to tout the program’s success, citing violent crime reductions of as much as 85 percent in some areas of Baton Rouge. Not least among the city’s many weapons in crime fighting – from law enforcement officials to social service providers – are University researchers whose work is, quite literally, saving lives.
They’ve developed a formula for murder prevention, and the results are irrefutable.
“I am pleased to say that when using a 30-day running average, every single day in 2013 was less violent than each day in 2012,” said Anthony Reed, and Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology.
Step One: Track Their Turf
Reed works with Dr. Edward Shihadeh in one prong of LSU’s BRAVE research, which covers plenty of ground – literally. Their specialty is geography, using law enforcement data to track crime rates over time to determine the most dangerous areas of town.
Geography and Anthropology Department Chair Dr. Fahui Wang is also using data mapping to thwart crime. Together with Ph. D. student Shaun Williams, Dr. Wang customized a Geographic Information System (GIS) environment for Baton Rouge to locate crime hotspots and patterns in the city.
In other words, they help stop crime by telling officers where – and when – it will occur.
“Violent offenders operate in patterns that not only allow us to predict their next offense, but also where it will take place,” Dr. Shihadeh said. “Understanding these patterns allows law enforcement officials to be more proactive in their approach.”
Step Two: Networking Works
Another field BRAVE utilizes through the University is organizational psychology. That’s the specialty of Dr. Tracey Rizzuto, who is the program’s social network analyst. An associate professor in the LSU College of Human Sciences and Education, her maps show the intertwining relationships of the city’s suspected criminals and victims, highlighting the shocking correlation between a crime and a person’s degree of separation from it.
“Research shows that people within two handshakes of a murder victim are 100 times more likely to be involved in a future murder,” she said.
Such research is critical to both the investigation of past and the prevention of future murders. By knowing the social structure of Baton Rouge’s most criminal, researchers can alert law enforcement to the likeliest future offenders.
“Which group is likely to turn into an organized gang down the road? If we can figure that out, we can help law enforcement focus their efforts in more resourceful ways,” Dr. Rizzuto said.
Step Three: Talk It Out
One of those resourceful ways is actual physical intervention among the criminally connected, a method the BRAVE team – including Moore – enacted in November. That month, several of the city’s reputed gang members met with law enforcement officials and community leaders, who issued an ultimatum in the sit-down session: follow the law, or prepare to be prosecuted to its fullest extent.
In addition to intervention efforts among suspected criminals, social workers at LSU also talk with those in the city’s most violent communities to help provide a full picture of the program and determine its public perception.
For BRAVE, it’s a matter of building relationships with violators, victims, and everyone in between.
“You earn a community’s trust and cooperation through demonstrating your commitment to helping them,” said Juan Barthelemy, a BRAVE evaluator and LSU assistant professor of social work. “With BRAVE, we constantly work to show our impact on the everyday lives of people in these communities.”
Step Four: Raise the Dough
None of BRAVE’s work would be possible without the support of federal grants, which is where Dr. Cecile Guin steps in. The director of the LSU School of Social Work’s Office of Social
Service Research and Development (OSSRD) has spearheaded the grant writing process for BRAVE.
Together, she and her team have helped BRAVE secure huge chunks of federal money, from a $1.5 million award in late 2012 to $3 million in grants between August and November 2013 from a variety of government and criminal justice groups.
That money has helped fund BRAVE’s success and expansion into the 70802 zip code, which borders the university to the north.
“These grants represent real change for neighborhoods in need of relief,” Dr. Guin said.
Criminal justice isn’t the end game for Dr. Guin or BRAVE, however. It’s criminal prevention, or what Dr. Guin calls “cradle to college” map for the city’s youths to follow from oppression to opportunity.
“Where we’ve really got to go with this as a community is to figure out a way to help children become productive citizens and avoid following a pathway into crime,” she said.
That pathway is far from complete, but its construction is well under way.
Other cities would do well take note.
“Baton Rouge is ready to demonstrate to others across this country how to go in and change a community,” said Holden.