By Lara Nicholson, Zane Piontek, Brea Rougeau and Jada Hemsley, LSU Manship School News Service
Juanice Gray contributed to this article
Chlanda Gibson was in her bed last April when she heard loud pops outside her window.
She had fallen asleep while waiting for her son, Roddrick Cook, 17, to come home after going out with friends. When she went to check on the noise, his friends knocked on the back door for help—one with a gunshot wound in his leg.
Cook was nowhere to be found, and as police investigated, Gibson sat in the back of a police cruiser, where she spent five dark hours wondering what had happened to him. Then she was given the devastating news: Her son, the 6-foot 4-inch, 250-pound high school football player who dreamed of going to the NFL, had been killed that night.
Gibson’s son still sits on the long list of Baton Rouge murders that remain unsolved. That list includes more than half of the city’s 121 homicides in 2021 as murder rates continue to soar nationwide.
The national surge in homicide rates stems from a variety of political and socioeconomic factors, trends to which Louisiana has proven far from immune. The Baton Rouge area, Shreveport, Alexandria and Lafayette all had record numbers of homicides in 2021.
As the killings stack up, clearance rates–the percentage of cases closed–has shriveled in some cities, and even cities that are solving most of their murders are struggling through staffing shortages.
The number of murders increased by 30% nationally in 2020, and the national average for homicide clearance rates dropped nearly 10 percentage points. The Murder Accountability Project, which analyzes FBI homicide data collected from local agencies nationwide, said that was the worst single-year drop and the lowest murder clearance rate on record.
In Louisiana, the average clearance rate saw a drop of 9.7 percentage points in 2020.
“A review of our 2020 and 2021 homicides rates show there was a lower clearance rate in 2021,” said Natchitoches Police Chief Nikeo Collins.
The results are as follows: 2020; five Homicides with four cleared by arrest for a clearance rate of 80%; 2021; six homicides with one cleared by arrest for a clearance rate of 16%.
“It is important to realize that some arrests for 2020 cases were made in 2021. This is in part due to the time needed to process evidence (DNA, Fingerprints, NBIN) through crimelabs, obtain search warrants, secure arrest warrants, locate suspects and arrest suspects. Typically a snapshot does not provide a true assessment,” Collins said.
New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher said there is no clear cause for the homicide rate skyrocketing, though the COVID-19 pandemic, attitudes toward police and increased firearm usage are all contributing factors.
Louisiana has long had one of the highest homicide rates in the country, Asher said, thanks to poverty, low education, violent tendencies from mass incarceration and widespread gun accessibility.
“We’ve got all of the problems,” Asher said. “We just have everything that you might think would make murder more prevalent or make murder clearance rates more difficult. We have them in spades, whereas other states might be missing only one or two ingredients.”
Shooting deaths in particular–which are prevalent in Louisiana, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–tend to be the hardest type to solve, Asher noted. There are typically fewer witnesses, more premeditation and less evidence.
And these obstacles have been further exacerbated at police departments by low funding, an embattled public image and staffing shortages.
“Communities and law enforcement can sometimes be at odds due to mistrust of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Recent media coverage of cases nationwide have fueled this mistrust and scrutiny of all law enforcement agencies. Despite empirical data to suggest otherwise, people are fearful that providing information to law enforcement will result in leaks of information and retaliation by suspects,” Collins said. “Our communities are becoming victims inadvertently due to their unwillingness to become involved in making sure their streets are free of those individuals that are committing crimes. Law enforcement realizes that respect and trust are things that have to be earned in our communities.”
It is alarming how frequently officers and investigators respond to scenes of violence and are met with the sentiment of witnesses that they do not want to talk or provide any information. Those same individuals will go straight to social media and post videos leading up to or during the incident. There is something critically wrong with a person not wanting to give information to law enforcement, but will post it to the public.
New Orleans PD had more than 130 officers leave the department in 2021 through resignations, retirements, terminations and deaths, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said last month.
“This isn’t anything unique to New Orleans, but across the country,” Ferguson said. “This profession has taken such a major blow with criticism.”
“It is true that law enforcement has suffered over the past two years with the loss of personnel due to resignations and retirements,” said Collins. “This loss of personnel results in fewer officers to patrol and fewer officers to investigate crimes. In law enforcement there is lack of demand to fill positions that have been vacated due to officers seeking higher pay or wanting to leave law enforcement due to public scrutiny. Agencies are struggling to replace personnel with adequately trained officers but this is challenging due to the extended process of hiring and training the officers.” He said officers have to attend a 17 week POST police academy to become fully certified and usually officers are required to complete field training with other senior officers before the officer is released to patrol alone. This means a shift will have fewer vehicles patrolling. Agencies are struggling not to cut corners and avoid filling vacancies with a “warm body.”
“This approach to recruitment can have dire consequences on an agency and the community being served,” Collins said.
This loss of personnel may attribute to an agency’s loss of access to trained and experienced law enforcement officers that have established ties within the communities they serve. The advantage of those officers is that there is a mutual understanding, respect for one another, and common interest in ensuring that the community’s safety is paramount.
Lt. Lane Windham of the Alexandria Police Department said most of the homicides there involve young people, typically from 15 to 25 years old. Most stem from drug deals or robberies “gone bad” or from domestic abuse.
He said that security cameras and cell-phone records are often crucial to solving crimes.
“While the members of the Natchitoches Police Department strive each day to make sure they are protecting and serving the citizens of Natchitoches we are taking steps to utilize technology to fill the voids caused by the unwillingness or mistrust of witnesses and victims to provide information concerning crimes. Technology has become useful in helping solve cases,” Collins said. “Our agency has been utilizing cameras, LPRs and forensics to help solve cases. Our agency is actively involved in participating and creating access for the public to provide information anonymously so that law enforcement receives tips that can be crucial in solving crimes and citizens can feel safe because there is no way information can be leaked that could put the tipster in danger.” The Natchitoches Police Department receives tips from both TipSubmit and Crimestoppers. NPD has seen a drastic increase in citizen use of the Crimestoppers service in the past two months. These tips have led to arrests, recovery of property, and payments issued to tipsters according to Collins. “The Natchitoches Police Department is set up on Neighbors so that citizens can send in videos from their surveillance systems when criminal activities have occurred in their communities. Citizens can register that they have cameras using the CityProtect mapping portal and can receive notices when crimes occur near their residences or businesses,” Collins advised. “NPD, along with the support of Mayor Williams and the City Council, are working diligently to find new solutions that will help improve our communities and reduce the criminal activity in the City of Natchitoches.”
Gibson, a nursing home caretaker, compared the mounting caseload for homicide detectives to her work during the pandemic: it’s harder and more strenuous, but it is no excuse to perform the job poorly or let cases fall through the cracks.
She hopes police departments are able to adapt to the rising caseloads so grieving families can get additional closure.
“It hurts your grieving process even more to feel like your child was thrown away,” Gibson said. “I know it’s a job, but my job is a job where I have compassion, and I like doing it. If you have that disconnect and you’re only there to collect a paycheck, you need to get out of there.”
Gibson said that even if her son’s case closes, she won’t get him back. She will not get to see him graduate from high school, play for the NFL or retire her one day.
One of the only things left of him is his phone, filled with pictures and videos of the two together. It now sits idle in an evidence locker somewhere in Baton Rouge police offices.
“That night, I made peace in the back of that car. I had to make peace,” Gibson said. “I’ve known other people that lost kids. I’ve seen how it has torn them, broken them, messed with their marriage, messed with relationships. That night, I just prayed to God that he’d give me peace. If I don’t question too much of the situation and just let go, I get through it.”
“It is truly a frustrating time for law enforcement who want to help the families and friends of victims that have lost their lives through senseless acts of violence,” Collins said. “On a daily basis our officers put their lives on the line to protect and serve. They are paid very little and suffer through countless onslaughts of the accusations, insults and threats,” Collins said. “I am truly proud of each and every one of my officers that put on their badge and despite the overwhelming tsunami of discord they stand ready to confront it head on and then assist with its aftermath.”
By Lara Nicholson, Zane Piontek, Brea Rougeau and Jada Hemsley, LSU Manship School News Service