Caught in the crossfire

Caught in the crossfire

As public places such as the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe tighten security after recent violence, law enforcement officials profess their toughness on crime.

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When you drop your child at a place that you perceive to be safe, you don't expect he or she will be hit with gunfire intended for someone else.

So when it happens, as it did last month at the Mall of Louisiana, when a Dunham School ninth-grader was one of two people wounded by stray bullets, the community sits up and takes notice in a way that it doesn't when, say, a homeless person takes a bullet on a street corner in a more seedy part of the city.

“People are really upset about this,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III says. “I've received a lot of calls from people on this one.”

In response, representatives from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office have met with officials from the mall, from Rave Motion Pictures, which operates the theater at the mall, and from nearby Perkins Rowe to hammer out a more coordinated security plan for the popular gathering areas.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials are dusting off the get-tough-on-crime rhetoric that has become standard in an increasingly violent community.

“Our No. 1 concern is public safety,” East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux says.

But as a practical matter, how do you combat crime when a teenage suspect is brazen enough to shoot into a parking lot teeming with witnesses, as was the case with the mall incident?

Moreover, why have previous efforts to reduce crime—including crime cameras, a police helicopter and multi-agency task forces—proven ineffective? The shooting, which took place on Jan. 7 between BJ's Brewhouse and Sake Café, was just the latest of several egregious incidents over the last two years, all of which have prompted initiatives that sounded good at the time but yielded little in the way of a safer Baton Rouge.

“The shootings are being solved, but it doesn't seem to be resolving the problem,” says Sid Newman, executive director of Crime Stoppers. “It's not just a law enforcement issue; it's a community issue.”

While the community tries to come to terms with the issue, businesses are coping by tightening security. Though Mall of Louisiana officials decline to discuss specific security procedures, the sheriff's office confirms the mall is hiring off-duty sheriff's deputies to patrol inside the facility and in the parking lot during evenings.

Until the recent incident, only Rave and Dillard's employed off-duty deputies, according to EBRSO spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks. Rave also will add more deputies to patrol in and around the movie theater, she says.

Additionally, deputies at the Rave and the mall will “network and communicate to pass information in order to try to identify possible issues and address them before problems occur,” she says.

As a practical matter, that means when the movie theater is expecting sold-out crowds for a premiere, deputies there will coordinate with their counterparts at the mall to make sure they're prepared for loitering teens.

Or, for example, a fight occurs but breaks up before deputies arrive at the scene. Given the enhanced communication, a description of those involved in the brawl can go out to businesses, private patrols and law enforcement officers in the area so that everyone can be on the lookout for trouble.

“We just need to make sure we're on the same page and that we're communicating with each other as we should be,” Gautreaux says.

The sheriff's office also will station its mobile crime unit, which has an aerial surveillance camera, at the mall on weekend nights, something it has previously done only during holidays and special events.

Gautreaux says the unit was effective during Christmas in helping deputies monitor a broad area, and it can go a long way toward making a difference on a regular basis. But even a good crime camera can only do so much.

“If [cameras] let law enforcement monitor the crowd … that's one way to help,” Moore says. “But cameras don't stop bullets.”

Making the mall safer

Officials with the Mall of Louisiana won't disclose the details of their security policy, but they say the precautions are more than adequate.

"We don't discuss the details of our public-safety measures because that would compromise our efforts," says Todd Denton, the mall's general manager, adding: "We are quite pleased with our public safety record here at Mall of Louisiana."

But the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office confirms it has met with mall officials in the wake of the Jan. 7 shooting to beef up security. Here are the measures under way:
• The mall will increase security patrols inside and outside the shopping complex, hiring off-duty deputies in the evenings to patrol. (Previously, only Rave Motion Pictures and DIllard's employed deputies for security.)
• The theater will increase the number of deputies patrolling in and around that facility.
• Deputies at the theater and the mall will network and communicate to pass information in order to try to identify possible issues and address them before problems occur.
• EBRSO will roll out its mobile crime camera on weekend nights.

Some people believe a relatively easy solution to at least part of the problem is a tighter curfew law. Currently, a curfew for juveniles is in effect from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. during the week, and from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

But the law has several loopholes, allowing teens with jobs, for instance, to be on the streets later. It also excludes 17-year-olds, who often are part of the problem. Two 17-year-old males were arrested in connection with the mall shooting. The first was released; the second admitted firing a weapon during an argument with another man outside the mall.

Metro Council member Chandler Loupe tried unsuccessfully last year to tighten the curfew, which Perkins Rowe General Manager Rick Balow would like to see happen. The mixed-use development has implemented an escort policy, which forbids anyone under 17 from walking around the property after 8 p.m. unless accompanied by an adult.

“We don't let [juveniles] walk around anymore,” Balow says. “We have zero tolerance.”

Since the tougher rules went into effect, Perkins Rowe hasn't had any incidents on its property, he says. A shooting at a nearby gas station last summer, however, is proof that putting security measures in place solves only the symptoms—not the causes—of crime.

And that raises the question of what to do. Once again, business and community leaders and law enforcement are talking of the need to “come together” and “get serious” about the problem.

“The day of saying that's over there, that's not my problem, is over,” Gautreaux says. “We can't say that anymore.”

Such rhetoric, while it rings true, has been heard before. After a string of high-profile killings in 2010, EBRSO joined forces with the Baton Rouge Police Department, the district attorney's office and dozens of other law enforcement agencies to form a violent crime task force.

The group has made some inroads in making arrests and solving crimes. But catching criminals isn't necessarily the deterrent one might have hoped it to be.

“I know investigators are out there investigating,” Newman says. “These guys are working hard. But they can only work with the tools they have.”

It's not that they don't have tools. BRPD can claim crime cameras and a helicopter in its arsenal. But neither have made a significant difference in preventing crimes from occurring, according to experts.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to simmer between EBRSO and BRPD, and between Gautreaux and Mayor Kip Holden. Gautreaux acknowledges such tensions are counterproductive, though he attributes one of the main causes of crime in the area to a post-Hurricane Katrina population increase.

“We all need to be on the same page,” he says. “Working together we accomplish a lot more than not.”

But Rev. Raymond Jetson, a former state legislator and pastor of Star Hill Church, believes it will take more than just greater cooperation from law enforcement. Until the community wraps its head around the litany of social ills that plague all communities with large, low-income populations, he believes, crime will continue to be a problem.

“Until we realize that violence does not happen in a vacuum but there are a whole lot of things associated with that violence … it will keep happening,” he says. “There are no turnkey solutions.”

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