East Baton Rouge Parish passed a grim milestone in 2020, and it wasn't COVID-19 related.
On Dec. 4, the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office announced that it had investigated 125 homicides, according to its Facebook page. This means that 2020 shattered the record for most homicides ever in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“This is more homicides than any year in the last 20 years, making 2020 the deadliest year on record for homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Coroner Dr. William “Beau” Clark said in a Facebook video.
On Feb. 1, the trend continued after the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office announced that January of 2021 was on record for being the most violent month in the history of East Baton Rouge Parish. Seventeen people were murdered in January, a high number compared to previous months. The most murders to occur in a single month last year was 14 in November.
January 2021 saw 19 homicides, more than double the number of homicides in January 2020.
Michael Barton, associate professor of sociology at LSU, believes that multiple factors play a role in violent crime rising expeditiously in Baton Rouge.
"The data shows that violent crime, especially homicides, increased dramatically during the second half of 2020," Barton said.
He pointed out that most violent crime that occurs in the parish is confined to the city of Baton Rouge and neighborhoods located north of downtown.
"Violent crime is an issue throughout the parish, but it increased in North Baton Rouge where crime was already high due to extreme disadvantage, limited conventional opportunities for work and a high prevalence for gang activity," Barton said.
Barton attributes the COVID-19 pandemic as the cause of the recent rise in violent crimes. He said this is due in part to the fact that a lot of people had their traditional lives upended once the virus invaded Baton Rouge. Many citizens who spent their days at work or who had other responsibilities saw those vanish once everything shut down due to the pandemic.
"A likely driver of violent crime, nationally or in the City of Baton Rouge was likely the strain that people were feeling due to the pandemic," Barton said. "Many people lost their jobs, the lockdowns encouraged people to stay home where they may be exposed to sources of victimization they would otherwise be able to escape. Many people act out in aggressive or violent ways when strained."
This rise in crime has brought a sense of consternation to officials in Baton Rouge.
“Baton Rouge, we are better than this,” Donna Collins-Lewis, council member for district 6, said.
Collins-Lewis, along with others, spoke at a news conference in October to address the staggering number of homicides that have plagued the parish this year.
“Every shooting, every killing impacts somebody’s family,” she said.
In 2019, East Baton Rouge Parish saw 97 homicides. In comparison to 2020, the parish saw 136 homicides which set a new record.
“Crime is crime, murder is murder,” Collins-Lewis said. “It impacts every family and everybody across this city.”
During the first month of 2021, the parish continued to grapple with grief and sorrow over the record-setting number of homicides.
“Every week we have a commanders meeting where I sit around with all of my captains from around the district,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said. “Every meeting we start off with prayer. That’s how we start our meetings off.”
It has been difficult for law enforcement and investigators alike to be dealing with such a high number of homicides in just one year, according to Paul.
“We pray for the community, we pray for our officers and we pray for peace,” Paul said.
It’s not always new offenders committing these homicides, the police chief pointed out.
“The same individuals, that is what I hear from my officers,” he said. “We arrest them and then we have to deal with them again. Shooting incidents, what’s right about that?”
While the police work tirelessly to curb the increase in crime, they also need the public's help.
“Our police officers are out there working,” Paul said. “We’re doing our part and we’re going to continue to ask the community to help us in those efforts.”
Officials stressed the importance of help from the community.
“It’s a collaborative effort from our whole community to be successful,” Todd Morris of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office said.
The ability of both the Sheriff’s Office and BRPD to work together has allowed for the agencies to resolve crimes at a much quicker rate.
“We work side by side with the sheriff's office everyday and we see the great work that our detectives are doing and sometimes we don’t give them the praise that they deserve,” Paul said.
As law enforcement officials work to get the violence under control, medical officials are fervently trying to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which has resulted in the death of 693 people in East Baton Rouge Parish since the coronavirus first began, according to new state health data.
Despite this, the parish has also seen more overdoses, deadly wrecks and natural deaths compared to 2019. It’s not known if these high numbers are related to the pandemic or not.
“Because of the almost exclusive coverage of the virus, other tragedies in our community such as overdoses and homicides have been overshadowed,” Clark said in a Facebook video.
While local media has been continuing their coverage of the pandemic and high numbers of homicides, overdoses have been left out of the spotlight.
“2020 has become the worst year yet,” Clark said. “To date, I have investigated 220 overdoses which nearly doubles last year's record of 128, making 2020 the deadliest year on record for overdoses in East Baton Rouge Parish.”
Andrew Burns, sociology of deviance instructor at LSU, attributes the rise in overdoses to the ongoing pandemic.
"There is reason to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a factor in an increase in overdose deaths," Burns said. "Social isolation and depression may play a role. Many former drug users may have experienced relapses, and new drug use may have developed, due to isolation, anxiety or depression."
Burns said that most people aren't living their normal lives and this could be a contributing factor to the staggering number of overdoses the parish experienced in 2020.
"In discussing this topic with certified peer recovery specialists, first responders working in EMS and fire, and with current and former addicts, the consensus is that the increase in overdoses has a lot to do with the loss of established routines, access to resources, and a lack of adequate coping strategies to replace those which were no longer possible during the pandemic," Burns said.