Baton Rouge is a violent city. Some years, its rate of murders per capita ranks among the nation's highest.
We all know this. But while many of us walk around with free-floating anxiety about crime, for most of us, walled off in our safe neighborhoods, violent crime is an abstraction.
The typical murder victim, like the typical perpetrator, is young, male and black. Often, the victim and the shooter know each other, and both are in the drug game. That doesn't make the violence any less tragic or senseless, but it does make it easier for the rest of us to dismiss the carnage as something that happens to other people.
Cpl. Betty Smothers, a police officer and single mother of six, didn't have much in common with the typical Business Report reader. But she was, by any definition, an innocent victim, and when she was gunned down in January 1993, a city mourned.
Smothers, who worked security in addition to her day job, was ambushed just after midnight along with a grocery store night manager as they made a deposit at a Jefferson Highway bank. According to a police spokesman, Smothers never even got her got gun out of its holster. She was one of dozens of people killed during what turned out to be a record-setting year for Baton Rouge homicides.
Within 48 hours, donations were pouring into a memorial fund set up to help Smothers' children. Her fellow officers struggled with the injustice that a woman whose career already put her in danger was murdered at her second job while trying to make ends meet for her family.
About two weeks before the shooting, she reportedly had been transferred into the community policing division, in which cops try to form positive relationships with the neighborhoods they patrol. Bridging the “us against them” mentality is one of the greatest challenges for law enforcement, then and now, and her commanding officer said her people skills made her a natural fit for the division.
And there is one more element of Smothers' backstory that made her more than another anonymous victim. Her son, Warrick Dunn, a senior at Catholic High, was a top-flight football recruit. Dunn went on to star at Florida State and play 11 seasons in the NFL.
While Dunn's on-field career was stellar, he was just as well-known for his charity work and was named the league's “man of the year” multiple times. Warrick Dunn Charities, among other efforts, helps single parents purchase and furnish their first homes. A new program, Betty's Hope, provides grief counseling for school-age children who have lost loved ones to violent crime.
“Counseling helped me realize that through her life and death, my mom taught me how to give of myself to those in need,” Dunn says.
Three men went to prison for Smothers' murder. Dunn met with one of them, Kevan Brumfield, in 2007 at Angola Prison, where Brumfield was on death row. After the meeting, Dunn told a reporter that he had let go of his hate of Brumfield and was “fine with whatever happens” to the convicted killer.
But after U.S. District Judge James Brady this year declared Brumfield mentally deficient and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, Dunn's anger came out again in the media. As Baton Rouge again threatens to record its bloodiest year ever, a growing number of residents can relate to Dunn's pain.
“I urge the citizens of Baton Rouge to be clear,” he wrote. “We cannot and will not have this blight against our city.”
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