Do you feel safer post Covid? Murder rate only tells part of the story, LSU criminologist says

BATON ROUGE, La. – Two weeks into the new year and more people have been killed or hurt in shootings in Baton Rouge than the number of days we’ve had in 2024.

The most recent incident was a triple shooting in North Baton Rouge on Wednesday night. Two adults and a young child were injured in that shooting that sources say stemmed from an ongoing feud. Last week, one person was fatally shot and five others injured in a shooting in broad daylight at an apartment complex on Greenwell Street.

Even though murders were down in 2023, LSU criminologist Dr. Ed Shihadeh says the numbers can be deceiving, if not placed in the right context.

“In 2023 homicides were down from the peak of COVID,” Shihadeh told UWK. “But everybody’s down from the peak of Covid.”

“All over the world, crime went up [during Covid], so there was no place for it to go but down,” he added.

In 2019, Baton Rouge had 84 murders before the Covid pandemic, according to Shihadeh. At the peak of Covid in 2021, there were 150 murders and last year, murders were down to 100.

Shihadeh says the downward trend is not unique to Baton Rouge and it is happening in other cities around the U.S, especially in cities with similar spikes in homicides during the pandemic.

“I know every politician wants to take credit for it, but the fact of the matter is [the downward trend] is attributed to Covid,” said Shihadeh. “Covid is gone and crime is beginning to edge back down.”

Baton Rouge Police investigate a triple shooting on Rosenwald Street that left a child and two adults injured on January 10, 2024.

It is important to keep these statistics in perspective, and compare the current homicide rate to the city’s pre-Covid numbers, according to the criminologist.

“I don’t think it’s time to throw your hands in the air and declare victory yet. The real metric is where were we before the pandemic,” Shihadeh cautioned. “The pandemic was the driver of this. So the pre-pandemic level should be the starting point.”

Social disorder and COVID’s effect on crime

Why did the Covid pandemic cause such a steep spike in violent crime? Shihadeh says it all goes back to a well-known, 100-year-old theory in criminology known as the “social disorganization theory.”

The social disorganization theory was developed by researchers at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. The social disorganization theory asserts that crime is most likely to occur in communities with weak social ties and the absence of social control. This occurs when the community is disorganized, when there’s rapid social change and social disruption.

“Society became disorganized. We all retreated back to our home and socially isolated. We didn’t go out on the streets anymore,” Shihadeh said.

When communities are socially isolated, Shihadeh says people pay less attention to young people who are crime prone, especially those involved in drug and gang activity.

“Communities broke down, young kids were wandering around the streets, fighting for drug turf and crime skyrocketed,” Shihadeh noted. “When we don’t exert social control on those streets and on the people in those streets as it were and in our communities, crime goes up. It’s predictable.”

The Greater New Orleans area experienced similar spikes in crime in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In Baton Rouge, crime skyrocketed towards the end of 2016 and into 2017 following catastrophic flooding, which left 100,000 people homeless, according to Shihadeh. 

Disturbing trend emerges post-pandemic in Capital Area

Breakdowns in social order have also contributed to another disturbing trend in the Capital Area – an increase in domestic violence ending in homicide.

Before the Covid pandemic in 2019, Baton Rouge recorded four domestic violence murders. In 2021, after Covid, there were 36. That is a 900% increase.

“What might have been a smack or loud argument before… [might now] turn into a murder,” said Shihadeh. “[Domestic violence] numbers are down and nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. We had 16 in 2023.”

The LSU criminologist notes that while the number of domestic violence-related homicides was four times higher than normal in 2023 compared to 2019 pre-pandemic, it is down from 36 domestic violence murders in 2021 during COVID.

In the first week of the new year, Baton Rouge recorded the first fatal case of alleged domestic violence.

Cynthia Lamb, a 37-year-old mother of six, was living in fear for her life, according to family members, who told UWK she ended a relationship with a man who became physically abusive. On January 2, Lamb was shot to death on Main Street in Baton Rouge. The man she had recently broken ties with was arrested.

Cynthia Lamb was a devoted mother of six who was found fatally shot in Baton Rouge.
Family members say Cynthia Lamb, 37, was a devoted mother who had recently ended an abusive relationship before she was fatally shot on January 2, 2024.

Homicides only tell part of the story

The murder rate is not the only number that should be considered when determining how safe or violent a community or city is, according to Shihadeh. Non-fatal shootings are also an important metric because more people are getting hit by bullets and not dying.

Shihadeh says the proliferation of high-capacity automatic weapons, which are illegal in Louisiana, results in more people getting shot during a single incidence of gun violence because they get caught in the crossfire.

How do we make our cities safe?

So, what is the key to making a city safer? While there is not one simple answer to this question, there are many theories being tested and programs implemented in cities throughout the United States.

Shihadeh says it partly comes down to law and order.

“Some of the criminal justice resources that we spend on sentencing people to 30 or 40 years to life, reduce that, ” Shihadeh said. “Use some of that money to prosecute the little stuff to create certainty and punishment.”

“If you shoplift, you will be prosecuted. If you litter, you’ll be prosecuted. If you threaten someone with violence, you’ll be prosecuted,” he said.

“It creates respect for the law and it creates order – and order is the friend of crime.”

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