It is just after 5 p.m. on a muggy, hot Louisiana evening and officers with the Baton Rouge Police Department and deputies from the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department, along with local community leaders, are gathering in Maplewood Park.
They are setting up a basketball hoop the sheriff’s department built on an old boat trailer, getting ready to tow it through one of city’s toughest neighborhoods.
East Baton Rouge Parish has seen a steep increase in homicides over the past year – 80 so far in 2021, up from 56 in June 2020 — and this community walk is the first local law enforcement has done there since COVID-19 made it impossible in March 2020.
Besides the basketball hoop, the officers are armed with a DJ and an ice cream truck, in a creative approach to fighting violent crime, with a fresh focus on community policing.
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux told ABC News that bringing the basketball hoop on patrol is a way to reach young people — to “let them know we care.”
“Between the music and the basketball, it is something the brings them out,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to show the community we love them,” executive director of the “Truce” program, Aishala Burgess, told ABC News at the neighborhood walk.
The nonprofit Truce program is designed to help young people ages 14-24, who may be in gangs, on probation or parole, or who have dropped out of school, Burgess explained. They’re offered mental health services, education, and medical appointments.
Gautreaux said the reason they target young people for outreach is because of the “negative influence” they’re exposed to on the street.
“We want to present a positive influence,” he said about the community walk, one of 300-400 community events his office carries out each year. “They need mentoring they need people to show them a better way of life, just doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
He said building relationships is key.
“It’s very important that we reach kids as early as we can, start working with them, start getting relationships built with them early on, and it’s not just the kids, it’s their families,” Gautreux said.
Sito Narcisse, the East Baton Rouge School Department superintendent, agreed.
“It takes a village to do the work,” he said.
As police officers and deputies walk down the street, young people start coming out of their homes, dancing and shooting hoops with them.
“Trust and respect is a two-way street, Gautreaux said. “If we aren’t trusting them and respecting them, how are we going to get that respect in return?”
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