Youth crime woes bring together residents, public officials for forum

Staff Report
Sheriff Brett Stassi listens to comments from a resident during a special meeting on youth crime in Plaquemine. More than 350 residents attended the meeting at Plaquemine City Hall. Shown in the background are Plaquemine Fire Chief Darren Ramirez, Major of Uniform Patrol for Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office District Judge Alvin Battiste, Plaquemine City Clerk Rozanne Richard and Mayor Ed Reeves. Seen at the table are Plaquemine Mayor Pro-Tem Oscar Mellion and District 4 Selectman Tommy LeBlanc.

A forum brought together the mayor and Board of Selectmen last week, along with law enforcement and the District Attorney on how to protect Plaquemine residents against the escalation in youth violence and illegal firearms.

A crowd of more than 300 packed the meeting chamber, while an overflow crowd listened from outside the room during the discussion at Plaquemine City Hall.

District 4 Selectman Tommy LeBlanc requested the special meeting amid the outcry from residents who have demanded a hardline stand on violence.

Plaquemine Mayor Ed Reeves made the city’s objective clear at the start of the meeting.

Plaquemine Mayor Ed Reeves

“We do not want to become the next Baton Rouge,” he said. “I think the people in our city have had enough,”

Plaquemine City Police Chief Kenny Payne said it will require a joint effort between the community and law enforcement.  

He said he is open to ideas that would help keep juveniles on the right path, but it will also take tougher parenting.

“The residents want programs to mentor and educate the juveniles. I don’t necessarily think that’s not a good thing or a requirement, but one of the issues is that we need to educate the parents and hold them accountable,” Payne said. “When we were growing up, our parents knew where we were at.”

The lack of available space in juvenile detention centers exacerbates the problem.

Bed space is scarce at detention facilities both in Louisiana and other states, which leaves very few options for law enforcement, Payne said.

“You could have a young guy, 15 years old, who sprays a house with 30 rounds of bullets, but then I have no place to put him, so I give him an ankle bracelet and the next night he’s back on the street,” he said. “I’m not saying put him behind bars and throw out the key, but we have no place to put him.”

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi displayed an assault rifle his office confiscated, with 18th District Attorney Tony Clayton presented a locally video produced by an area gang that highlighted the violent nature.

District Attorney Tony Clayton discusses his efforts to help curb youth crime in Plaquemine. Pictured in the background are Plaquemine City Marshal Michael Barbee, Plaquemine Police Chief Kenny Payne and Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi.

"I’m going to cut right to the chase … we have a serious issue when it comes to our little town, but we can fix it,” he said. “When you’re watching these weapons on these videos, those are a lot of the same weapons that are being used to commit homicides.”

Clayton and Stassi echoed Payne’s sentiments on parental responsibility.

“It’s hard for us to look for solutions,” Clayton said. “The solutions have to come from the communities and the families themselves.

“It boils down to the community and the family, and keeping a common-sense eye on teenagers,” he said. “If you see your 14-year-old with an assault rifle, you should take it from him, call the police and ask questions.”

Both parties will have to play a role in the solution, Stassi said.

“I them to be a part of the solution, as well,” he said. “If you don’t teach your kids to have respect at a young age, it gets to the school and then to the streets, and then we have to deal with it.”

While detention centers could make a difference, bed space will always be an issue, along with the price.

Most facilities charge upwards of $600 per day if a bed is available, but the costs don’t stop there, Stassi said.

“You need to have people on staff – teachers, doctors, psychiatrists and so on.,” he said. “It’s not cost effective, and that’s why the St. James youth detention facility went under.”

Meanwhile, residents in the areas said the escalation in gun violence has made life much more small-town life dangerous.

One resident agreed that parents need to be held accountable.

“My children can’t play outside in my community where I live after 4 on Friday because they have to be subjected to violent music, violent outbursts,” she said. “I’ll say 'hello' to the kids who walk down the streets, and they’ll respond with “yes, maam” and “no, maam” and not trying to be cool in front of me.

“So, let’s find the adults who thought it was okay to subject these children to this,” the resident said. “Let’s put more pressure on grownups. What happens in the back of town at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. is not 14-year-olds.

“They don’t abide the signs on Calvin Street or jump the hills on LaBauve,” he said. “These aren’t 14-year-olds doing this, but this is what they’re looking up to right now, and I hate that we’re sitting here talking about how to punish our juveniles right now.”

Resident Debra Dickerson described the longtime effect of losing a child to gun violence.

“It’s the void … a hole, a missing piece of your family is lost, with bleeding hearts and having to say goodbye to a child who was shot because of a robbery or a broken friendship,” she said. “And then at night, you can’t sleep, or you dread the sounds of a firecracker or tire blowout … it’s worse than serving in a war.

“Why? Because a child had temporary emotions and temporary feelings, and in a split second pulled the trigger and it was done,” Dickerson said. “Are we listening? Change only happens when people talk. Our young people are crying to us and none of us are listen. It’s not about our problems … it’s about our children.”

Resident Chuck Elkins said the violence comes from a small group that has given a bad name to other teenagers.

“You listen tonight and you’re hearing people slander young people. There are thousands of teenagers in Iberville Parish, and there’s a very small bunch causing the problems.

“I’m not happy with the answer that we have no place to put them,” he said. “I don’t understand with the district attorney means when he says he can charge them but can’t hold them, and we’re talking about a serious crime problem. The problem is that a 14-year-old who gets a gun and kills someone has the discretion to know what he did.

“I agree that we need to do something on how to hold the troubled kids … there are children who need help,” Elkins said. “But that’s not the answer to this problem.”

The issues with violent juveniles make the job particularly difficult for law enforcement, Payne said.

“It’s a frustrating for my officers because juveniles are the most dangers criminals because they have no respect for life, and it’s worse now because they’re like is a video game where they can hit a reset button,” he said. “We have a district attorney with a mind in the right place and has the right mindset. He’s not talking about throwing the key away but talking about educating and rehabilitating them.

“I would venture to say that juvenile crime problems in the City of Plaquemine are almost as numerous as the whole parish,” Payne said. “I don’t begin to say I have the answers.”

Reeves said he would like to hold another forum. He believes the comments from the crowd sent a message to all law enforcement in the area.

 “They’re angry, frustrated and worried, but hopefully we’ll get some closure on this,” he said.