CRITICAL MASS: BRPD detectives speak out about the department, crime and how to turn the tide
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - As seasoned police officers head into retirement, there are often fewer men and women applying to take their place.
Such is the case in the Baton Rouge Police Department, where homicide detectives carry increased caseloads and increased pressure to solve murders across the city.
So far in 2022, the city has logged 96 homicide cases. That’s down from 133 homicides in all of last year.
However, Baton Rouge Police have just eight detectives to investigate those deaths as well as other death that is not attributed to natural causes.
A team from WAFB spent nearly four months following homicide detectives Corporal Josh Brogan, and Corporal Saundra Watts.
Cpl. Saundra Watts admits her story is a little bit unique. She came to law enforcement in 2009 at age 38 after a career in active military duty. She joined the Homicide in 2016. “You have to really have a strong sense of who you are to be a homicide detective,” she said. “You have to be willing to put in the extra work. You have to be willing to go that extra mile.”
The homicide rate is personal for her. Many of the crimes she investigates are in the north Baton Rouge neighborhoods where she grew up. “I’m concerned for the families,” she said.
It’s a lifestyle family in crime-ridden pockets of the city have learned to live with.
On September 13, Watts responded to the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Calvin Roberts in Evangeline Park. Yards away, children looked on from swings and see-saws. Across the park, middle schoolers gathered for football practice. Death in these areas is a way of life.
“Raising a kid in this area is real different. It’s rough.” said their coach, Devin Jackson. “They knew about what happened before I even knew what happened. Anything can happen. Anything can happen at any minute.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” Watts said, “to actually have to respond to an area that you knew so well.”
One day later, police arrested two juveniles for their involvement in the shooting.
The streets were not always this way. Watts said, “As a kid, to be able to go outside and play, and have fun, and just enjoy your environment.” she said. “And now, to enjoy your environment, it may, ultimately, cost you your life.”
Last year, Cpl. Josh Brogan was the primary detective on 17 homicides. “That’s astronomical,” he said. “We had a guy that had 19.”
The Baton Rouge Police Homicide Division is made up of just eight detectives. They investigate every homicide, every drug overdose, every suicide, and every other non-naturally-caused death in the city.
Brogan came to BRPD as a rookie cop in 2008. He joined the Homicide Division in 2018. “The Homicide Division is why I came to the Baton Rouge Police Department,” he said. “Seeing my dad work the cases. Back then they had them in big folders. He’d bring them home as he was working them. It’s always been a big interest of mine.”
In the Homicide Division, detectives team up in pairs to investigate a death. One partner is the lead detective, and the other helps. When the next death comes along, they tend to swap, and the partner takes lead and the other assists. These days it’s not unusual, Brogan said, for a team to work more than two dozen cases a year.
That’s only the cases in which the duo work as the primary detectives. Brogan said that when another case comes in, any available, on-duty detective responds. “There’s no telling how many murders you actually deal with in a year’s time,” he said.
“Yes, we could use more detectives,” Watts said, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that was true, but we make the best with what we have. Yes, our caseload is large. It is extremely large because we are seeing a progressive elevation of crime within the Baton Rouge community.”
With senior officers and detectives retiring and fewer and fewer people applying for Police Academy classes, the outlook is grim. And with crime on the rise, the pressure to perform falls on detectives.
The four detective teams in the Baton Rouge Homicide Division rotate days to respond to calls. That means every fourth day, Brogan and his partner are on call. The same goes for Watts and her partner.
Weekends, weekdays, overnights it doesn’t matter. When there is a body to investigate, the on-call team responds. The practice in the division is to not allow a team more than two new investigations in a 24-hour period.
Brogan said that’s too much for anyone to handle. If a third death occurs, that investigation is given to the next team on-call. And the bodies continue to stack up.
“We were working a case from three months ago,” Brogan said, “and we’re almost to the point of making an arrest, but then Thursday happens. We catch back-to-back murders. That’s not a staffing issue, but you’ve got fresh murders, you’ve got to work them.”
But the work you see detectives do at a crime scene is only the tip of the iceberg. “Seventy-five percent of our day consists of computer work,” Watts said.
Attending autopsies, research, typing reports, requesting warrants, and preparing for trial. “It’s almost like preparing for a test,” Brogan said. “You’ve really got to know all the information and remember everything that happened during the investigation.”
What happens in court is sometimes a raw spot with detectives. “When you start getting repeat offenders and they’re getting slapped on the hand. And we’re constantly dealing with the same people.” Watts said. “The public isn’t looking at the judicial system. The public is looking at me, saying I didn’t do my job.”
So far this year, according to the Real Time Crime Center, BRPD detectives have a homicide clearance rate of 52.69% -- more than three points higher than the national average. “We do put the offenders in jail the majority of the time.” Brogan said. “Just to turn around and see them on the street a little while later. It does affect us in that aspect because of the hard work we put in, and this very dangerous individual is back on the street.”
“They’re constantly being a menace to a neighborhood,” Watts said. “And they’re constantly beating their girlfriend. You’re constantly seeing them on the domestic violence scene, and it’s constantly escalating.” sh said. “Why does it take him killing her before he’s put away for a good time?”
In the four months WAFB followed Brogan, we watched him respond to 10 homicides. That’s on top of several drug overdose cases he and his partner investigated. In almost every instance, neighbors and family members surrounded the crime tape but were reluctant to speak.
“People just don’t want to talk to us,” Brogan said. “They don’t want to be seen talking to us. They don’t want people to know that they helped us. Ultimately whenever these things happen in your community, we need your help to tell us what happened.”
Watts agreed. “If the public is not telling us we can’t get these murderers, these burglars -- all of these bad actors – we can’t get them off the street.” She added, “If they don’t want to talk to us face to face, we understand because they live in these communities. If the public would just work with us a little bit more in that aspect, I think we would see a significant change and a significant impact in our areas that are just plagued with crime.”
Ultimately, for every homicide they investigate, every drug overdose, and every suicide, detectives see themselves as the voice for the victim. “You are putting a face to the public for this deceased person,” Watts said. “You’re fighting for them. You’re fighting to bring them justice.”
Even after six years of viewing death up close, Watts said death notifications never get easy. “That mother’s cry is one that kind of rocks your soul,” she said wiping away tears.
She said it may be the biggest misconception people have about detectives. They are not robots mechanically combing crime scenes for clues. They are human.
“I think the general public sees us, and we’re always in motion,” she said. “Because of that, they don’t get to tap into the human side. But we are human. These crimes do affect us. We do care.”
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