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Baton Rouge, La., Police Use Federal Funds on New DNA Tech

Flush with millions of federal dollars — mostly from a bill aimed at helping states balance budgets gutted by the coronavirus-induced recession — Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies are shelling out for new technology.

(TNS) — A fleet of new police cruisers. Dozens of security cameras. A machine that can return DNA matches in 90 minutes.

Flush with millions of federal dollars — mostly from a bill aimed at helping states balance budgets gutted by the coronavirus-induced recession — Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies are shelling out for new equipment, technology and training.

The spending by Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul's administration falls under a key part of President Joe Biden's agenda, which Paul has participated in: A campaign that seeks buy-in from police chiefs and local officials on spending their share of cash from last year's American Rescue Plan Act to thwart surging violent crime.

The lion's share of money going to Baton Rouge law enforcement from the feds is from that bill. Of a $13.3 million chunk of ARPA money BRPD has received, about $8 million has paid for 200 new patrol cars, the White House said. Paul said the money will also pay for new surveillance cameras, license plate readers, training and upgrades to a nerve center where police respond to crime as it happens.

Two-and-a-half years into the East Baton Rouge homicide wave, Paul said the money gives the department a boost as it makes upgrades and tries new ways to fight crime.

"We have this economic hardship that we were coming out of as we go back to some type of normalcy, and having this money available was really critical," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R- Baton Rouge, nabbed a $687,000 earmark in Washington for new technology that can return DNA test results in hours, rather than days — something Baton Rouge officials hope could curb a massive logjam of cases at the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab.

The crime lab is sitting on a backlog of 2,500 DNA cases, officials said in February. Blaming a staffing exodus and heavy demand for the backup, they warned it could stall a host of pending trials. The crime lab has struggled to stay on top of DNA testing demands in the past, as have law enforcement agencies nationally.

Using Graves' earmarked funds, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux plans to buy and service rapid DNA testing technology that could help clear future backlogs.

Where traditional DNA technology can take months to return a hit on a suspect, rapid DNA testing allows law enforcement to insert a sample taken from a cheek swab into a machine and get a result in roughly 90 minutes.

The FBI approved the technology's use in booking areas, but it is still in early development as a tool for criminal investigations and has not yet earned approval for use in those settings. If approved, EBRSO would run the service in partnership with the State Police Crime Lab. Other local agencies could eventually use the system for DNA cases, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, a sheriff's office spokesperson.

Graves said he pursued the earmark — a type of funding request D.C. lawmakers can use in the appropriations process to get cash for pet-projects in their home districts — after hearing persistent calls from local, state and federal cops that Louisiana's DNA backlog was stalling too many investigations.

"I can call state judges, I can call the supreme court and ask them to speed up cases," Graves said in an interview. "But processing of evidence is ultimately key to getting many of these cases to move forward."

Biden's push for local agencies to use relief money for police services comes as Republicans have attacked his White House as weak on law and order, amid a surge of violent crime that has engulfed the nation in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic.

That pattern took shape in early 2020 and escalated in 2021, in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, as the U.S. faced a rollercoaster of coronavirus cases and fluctuating economic restrictions, continued financial hardship, a backlogged court system, strained community-police relations following the George Floyd murder and an ever-increasing pandemic death toll.

Amid that landscape, Biden has made his bid to local cops a key part of his criminal justice platform.

"To every governor, every mayor, every county official, the need is clear, my message is clear: Spend this money now," the president told reporters at the Rose Garden this month. "Do it quickly, before the summer, when crime rates typically surge."

When he unveiled the plan to combat violent crime in 15 American cities and counties, including Baton Rouge, Biden touted the collaboration but said little about why his administration chose those communities.

Baton Rouge — the second-smallest jurisdiction in the lineup — has rarely seen the level of national attention received by cities like Chicago and Baltimore. But its homicide rate trends among the highest on the list, less than a decimal point below top-ranking Baltimore at the time Biden announced the program, according to an Advocate analysis of crime data.

Some community organizations and activists questioned the way BRPD has spent the federal cash, arguing that new equipment and training does little to address poverty, which officials have connected time and again to Baton Rouge's surging gun violence.

A fleet of new police cars won't do much to divert struggling teens in poverty-stricken areas from lives of crime, for example, said Jennifer Carwile, a representative of local nonprofit Together Baton Rouge. She said she'd like to see more money go towards programming.

"If we're going to solve our violent crime issue, we need to address housing, we need to address wages, we need to address support programs for young people," Carwile said.

The Police Department's overall 2022 budget comes to about $95.9 million. In 2020, it was $77 million.

The city-parish budget grew by $50 million last year, and the biggest new spending in the General Fund, which pays for most operations, was a $2.3 million increase for the city police.

The bulk of ARPA dollars headed to BRPD under the Biden partnership will pay for new police cars. Paul said the department bought 125 marked patrol units and 40 unmarked units. Police units are supposed to be replaced every four-to-six years. The new vehicles will get the department to 80% compliance with that standard for marked vehicles and near 100% on unmarked vehicles, Paul said.

"Cars for days," he said, describing the fleet of new cars lined up at BRPD headquarters on Airline Highway.

A White House fact sheet says another $2 million will pay for BRPD to upgrade old technology. That sum will fund new surveillance cameras to pipe footage from around the city into the department's Real Time Crime Center, 80 new license plate readers — a tool that police said caught a driver accused of a recent hit-and-run in Central — and helicopter maintenance, Paul said.

The remaining $3.3 million will pay for training and community policing resources, according to the White House. Paul said that will include new training aimed at teaching officers how to work with federal and state-level agencies.

"We've gotta thank the federal government for presenting this money during difficult times," Paul said.

© 2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.