A period of unprecedented bloodshed in East Baton Rouge has finally slowed, as record homicides reported in 2021 in the city-parish dropped last year by nearly 23%.

But even as killings dissipated across the city in 2022, they exploded in some enclaves previously untouched by the soaring violence — like a corridor of gas stations, strip malls, run-down motels and low-cost housing clustered around Interstate 12 near Sherwood Forest Drive, Advocate data show.

Bullet holes riddle the door and driver’s window of a car at the intersection of Picardy and Bluebonnet near an entrance to the Mall of Louisiana, as Baton Rouge Police Dept. officers and others work the scene of a drive-by shooting, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

The newspaper’s records show 115 people lost their lives to violence last year, the first time the city-parish’s annual homicide total dropped since 2019. A series of community initiatives and partnerships between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies sought for months to halt the bloodshed, or at least slow it.

City officials credit those efforts with helping prevent homicides in the summer months  — a period when killings have historically surged.

“Some of the things we did with the Summer of Hope…we really saw some wins from that,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said. “Particularly with the cooperation from the community, a lot of calls came in from people telling us who the individuals are involved in violent crime.”

Non-fatal shootings dropped, too, by about 11%, District Attorney Hillar Moore said. Deaths caused by intimate partner violence dropped by 33% from 36 to 24, Moore said.

The goal, officials say, is to have even fewer killings in 2023.

The decrease still left East Baton Rouge with dozens more homicides in 2022 than in each of the two years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Driven in part by an uptick in fatal shootings in December, the year’s 115 total homicides surpassed 2020’s figure by a single death, marking 2022 as the capital region’s second-most murderous year on record.

The data reveals some troubling new trends: more young children killed by family members and a high number of shootings related to confrontations and disputes.

“Surely we’re glad to see the decline in the homicide rate from last year,” Moore said near the end of 2022. “But we also have to be mindful that last year was such a high number that this is still not where we want to be. We’re not pleased with this number, and our numbers should continue to be going down.”

Some neighborhoods still suffering

For the first few months of the year, data show the bloodshed progressing at nearly the same frenetic pace as it had in 2021 before slowing in the summer and fall.

As the violence slowed, records show it remained clustered in neighborhoods mired in poverty and disinvestment in the city’s northern quadrant, particularly within the 70802, 70805 and 70806 zip codes. Even as violence dropped city-wide, killings continued in those three zip codes — encompassing neighborhoods like the Bottoms, Brookstown and Fairfields, respectively — at rates similar to 2021.

Kiara Jones, 25, stands stunned on West Chalfont Drive following the stand-off with a local resident and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department that resulted in several rounds of gunfire on Saturday, May 14, 2022 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jones was at her 25th birthday party just a few houses down when the events unfolded.

Victims included a 17-year-old boy shot one weekday morning and left for dead on a Terrace Avenue sidewalk; a 21-year-old who had studied to become a chef and worked at a local hospital before he was slain outside his home on Bradley Street; and, in what became yet another flashpoint over gun violence in the weary city, three-year-old Devin Page, Jr., who was killed by a stray bullet as he slept in his family’s new house on Fairfields Avenue.

“My heart is very heavy,” said Cathy Toliver, Page’s grandmother, at a press conference in December discussing community resources to slow the violence.

Toliver started a campaign in the wake of Page’s death called Help Five Stay Alive, which urges people to make a habit of checking in with five acquaintances each week about their mental health.

“I believe that if someone had asked the person who murdered my grandson — who blew his brains out — how they were doing, what was going on, I believe they could have been talked down off that ledge,” she said. “And I believe, possibly, that my grandson would still be here.”

Cathy Toliver, right, grandmother of Devin Page, Jr., calls out to the crowd gathered to help stop gun violence before it takes one of their family members too as her daughter, Tye Toliver, mother of Devin Page, Jr., listens, left, during a celebration of life in his honor at Morning Star Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday, April 16, 2022. Page, 3, was killed by a stray bullet while sleeping in his family’s home on Tuesday.

Police have not detained a suspect in Page’s slaying.

A declining homicide rate in Baton Rouge mirrors an emerging national trend: Deaths and injuries from firearms and mass shootings went down in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit group that tracks shootings in the United States. Slayings in large U.S. cities dropped more than five percent so far in 2022 compared to the same time in 2021, research from the consulting firm AH Datalytics shows.

Most Americans still believe crime is up, polling shows, on the heels of a midterms election cycle where crime figured prominently in Republican campaign messaging.

‘A cocktail of violence’

Even as killings dropped across East Baton Rouge, the violence soared in some pockets of the city that had previously been relatively untouched by surging homicides. Outreach workers and law enforcement officials say a cluster of low-cost motels and apartments near the I-12-Sherwood Forest interchange have created a potent cocktail of drug activity, poverty and desperation that worsened on the heels of COVID-19. That environment often leads minor disputes to escalate quickly into violence.

Such properties stand all over the city, often at interchanges between highways. But they are particularly tightly packed within a two-square area that abuts the Sherwood Forest interchange. That neighborhood drove a surge of killings in the 70816 zip code, records show, even as homicides city-wide went down.

The zip code logged 21 homicides last year compared to 6 slayings in 2021, according to data from the District Attorney’s Office and records maintained by The Advocate. The newspaper tracks intentional and unjustified killings as defined by FBI crime reporting rules. Those killings are criminal homicides and legally classified as murder and manslaughter. The numbers can change if authorities later deem some cases accidental or justified or vice versa.

Recent casualties of violence at the hotel properties included 41-year-old Sedrick Lewis, whom a younger man shot from behind in a motel parking lot in December as Lewis fled an argument over stolen drugs, police have said. Another man died at the same motel, the FairBridge Inn Express, a month earlier.

Slain a few miles west were Juan Reyes Lugos, 26, shot dead at a Sleep Inn on Plaza Americana Drive; Jaci Bergeron, 32, shot following an argument at an Oyo Hotel on Gwenadele Avenue; and 2-year-old Kyland King, whose father beat him to death with a belt at the same Oyo property in August, police have said.

A lampshade covered in what appears to be blood spatter is scene in a dumpster outside of the SleepInn hotel on Plaza Americana Drive, Wednesday afternoon, February 2, 2022, in Baton Rouge, La. Baton Rouge Police have arrested David Mendez, 45, of San Bernardino, Cali. for his involvement in the shooting death of Juan Reyes Lugos, 26, of Mexico, that occurred at the property earlier this morning.

People who kill often say later that they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they pulled the trigger, said Tonja Myles, a longtime advocate who does rehabilitation work at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and outreach at the hotels in the 70816 area.

“To take someone else’s life comes easily when you see no way out,” Myles said.

Poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic, deteriorating mental health and a frayed social safety net drives people with few other housing options to the hotels, Myles said. In that environment of desperation, tensions can flare quickly.

“It just makes for a bad cocktail of violence: You have stress, you have mental health, you have a lot of things our country is going through,” Myles said. “It’s easy to disagree on social media where you can go back and forth with words. In real life, it’s easier to act and resort to violence.”

Bystanders react as Baton Rouge Police investigate a shooting at Terrace Grocery on the corner of S. 15th Street and Terrace Avenue on Monday, October 10, 2022 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The subdued death rate in 2022 followed a year of what felt like stunningly frequent violence for those who experienced it in East Baton Rouge. Killings in 2021 reached an unprecedented height for the second year running as the parish marked 149 lives lost to violence that year, records show.

Some cities have not been spared by the slowing violence. Among them is New Orleans, whose 265 murders so far, a rate of five per week, mean the Crescent City holds what is expected to be America’s highest murder rate.

Critical to keeping Baton Rouge’s numbers on the downturn will be addressing staffing and manpower shortages within the offices of the city police, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff, the District Attorney, the courts and the public defender, Moore believes. But the trend is also fueled by deeper problems, he said, like school truancy and mental health.

“I believe that until we staff up all those offices, our numbers are going to continue at a rate that we’re not happy with,” he said. “We have to solve that problem or all the things get lost in the shuffle.”