Posted on January 11, 2021

Baton Rouge’s Most Murderous Year on Record

Lea Skene and Jacqueline DeRobertis, The Advocate, January 8, 2021


2020 was a year of monumental losses. While the coronavirus death toll climbed steadily, the East Baton Rouge Parish homicide rate rose to an unprecedented level, making 2020 the most murderous year in known history.

Other communities are seeing similar trends: Based on preliminary data, criminologists believe the national murder rate experienced its largest single-year rise to date between 2019 and 2020.

At least 114 lives were lost to violence in East Baton Rouge Parish, shattering all previous records and presenting a significant increase over the previous high of 106 homicides in 2017. The numbers are drawn from records maintained by The Advocate, which tracks intentional and unjustified killings per FBI crime reporting rules. Those killings are considered criminal homicides and classified under the legal definitions of murder and manslaughter.

Nonfatal shootings surged as well, increasing more than 20% over 2019, officials said.


Experts are struggling to explain the trends but pointed to a confluence of factors.

People are under massive amounts of stress from the pandemic, often desperate for money and frustrated at the complete upheaval of normal life. Meanwhile nationwide protests against police brutality tested relationships among officers and their communities, and changes in the criminal justice system left law enforcement agencies struggling to be proactive and solve crime while adhering to social distancing requirements.

The Baton Rouge community also saw fractures in its model of crime prevention, response and accountability: from the closure of youth programs and support services to prolonged disruption of the court system.

In addition to a huge jump in domestic violence homicides across East Baton Rouge, there is one common thread that officials highlighted: People are killing each other more often during minor disagreements, resorting to excessive violence with little regard for the consequences. And more shootings are happening during daylight hours, not so often under cover of darkness.

The burden of this increased violence fell most heavily on the shoulders of Black families in Baton Rouge’s poorest neighborhoods, where residents describe decades of decline and disinvestment — the same communities hit hardest in the coronavirus pandemic.

With detectives struggling to manage historic caseloads, local law enforcement agencies still managed to solve a significant number of cases. But about 42% remain open with no arrests made.

The clearance rate was higher during the first six months of 2020 — about 74%, which is well above the national average — when killings also remained somewhat less frequent. Cases are considered cleared when an arrest has been made, or when a suspect is identified but arrest is impossible, most often because the person has died.


The unprecedented murder rate was disappointing but not entirely surprising to Baton Rouge officials, because these are unprecedented times.

“The pandemic created all of these challenges and circumstances that we’ve just never seen before,” said Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul. “There are so many factors at play here.”

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III estimated that at least half of the homicides were drug-related or resulted from group or gang violence.

The parish saw a similar trend in 2017 following the events of the previous summer: Widespread civil unrest after the death of Alton Sterling in July 2016, an ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and a catastrophic flood had brutalized the city, leaving many without security or stability.

That record-breaking year preceded two years of relative peace in 2018 and 2019, with 86 and 83 homicides respectively.

In explaining the 2017 spike, some experts referred to what sociologists call the social disorganization theory. The idea is that major disruptions to everyday life and shifts in the collective consciousness often correlate with increased violence. While that explanation was specific to Baton Rouge in 2017, the events of 2020 created chaos and trauma on a global scale.

“It’s happening everywhere — Lubbock, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Shreveport,” said New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher. “One common factor is the pandemic.”

Leaders of the BRPD union have blamed Paul and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome — a Democrat who appointed the current police chief and was recently reelected to a second term — for the high number of homicides. But Asher said such politically focused arguments don’t hold water because the data show little variation in murder rates between Democratic and Republican cities across the country.

Asher compiled homicide data from 58 American cities through October 2020. His analysis showed a collective increase of about 36% over 2019 numbers, roughly the same increase seen in Baton Rouge.

A similar analysis by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum found the following increases over 2019 data during the first nine months of 2020: a 79% increase in Louisville, a 51% increase in Chicago and an 85% increase in Minneapolis. Officials with the New Orleans Police Department recorded a 71% increase in the annual total.

Researchers with the nonprofit pointed to changes in policing that could be contributing to the nationwide increase, among other factors. Officers have become less proactive during the pandemic, heeding social distancing requirements and avoiding minor arrests to help reduce jail populations amid concerns about the virus spreading behind bars.

Some departments also experienced manpower shortages due to officers quarantining or getting sick, meaning fewer eyes on the streets. All those impacts apply to Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies.

But there’s another reason, some researchers said, which has only been exacerbated since the killing of George Floyd prompted nationwide protests against police brutality, culminating in calls from some activists and politicians to “defund the police.” {snip}

“Many cops … have become more cautious about their activities,” Executive Director Chuck Wexler wrote in a November memo. “Why? Because they’re concerned about a legitimate arrest becoming contentious, and a video going viral without any context, and political leaders quickly weighing in.”

Paul noted that the protests in Baton Rouge remained largely peaceful, but he said BRPD officers are not exempt from feeling those concerns, which can result in a reluctance to engage in proactive patrols. “I’m gonna be honest about the state of policing,” he said.”The George Floyd incident happened hundreds of miles away but the impacts made their way to our front door.”

Experts also argue such incidents erode public trust in law enforcement agencies, making people more likely to take justice into their own hands.