Outside the headlines, something else has been happening since Alton Sterling was killed by a Baton Rouge police officer this month, reports Fivethirtyeight.com. The Baton Rouge Police Department has substantially reduced enforcement of narcotics offenses. That may sound like a small change, but narcotics enforcement can be an important glimpse into how often officers work. Police officers do both reactive work (responding to 911 calls, for example) and proactive work (such as traffic stops that lead to drug arrests). In a moment of heightened tension between the police and a city’s residents, the trends in proactive policing can tell us whether officers are engaging with residents more or less often than they had been doing.
A reduction in proactive policing could have a broader effect on Baton Rouge as a whole. Higher levels of violence have followed a reduction in narcotics enforcement in some cities whose police departments have been involved in high-profile deaths or the protests that followed. Will the same thing occur in Baton Rouge? The city’s open data portal provides information on more than 27,000 narcotics offenses from January 2011 to the present, and a review of those showed a clear change after Sterling was shot. The police department averaged 94 narcotics offenses per week from the start of 2011 through July 4, the day before Sterling was killed. In the seven days after Sterling was killed, there were only 22 narcotics offenses, 77 percent fewer than average. The specific reason for the apparent drop in proactive policing is unclear. The police department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The drop may be the result of the short-term response of a police department whose capabilities were stretched thin by protests held in response to the Sterling shooting and was still reeling from the Dallas attack on police officers.