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Many bullets, little blame: A better blueprint to punish shooters

In the 1980s, authorities started to adjust the way they viewed and handled domestic violence. Can the same tactics alter the way shootings are investigated?

By CHRISTINE VENDEL
The Kansas City Star

Twenty-five years ago, assault victims lived in fear across the Kansas City area. Thousands called police annually for help. Yet many refused to testify against their attackers, even after enduring repeated attacks.

The perps were husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. Their crime: domestic violence.

Victim advocates, editorial writers, lawmakers, police, prosecutors — even a governor — eventually rallied to the victims’ rescue. Attitudes, laws and prosecution tactics changed. Arrests doubled, reports of repeat violence waned.

The blueprint used back then could make a difference today, experts say, when it comes to dealing with shooting cases that lack victims willing to prosecute. Sixty-percent of last year’s shooting victims did not cooperate with police, according to an analysis by The Star.

After all, the situations share similarities. Fearful victims, for one. A legal system unfriendly to their plight, for another.

Both problems seemed intractable. Skepticism abounded that anything could be done.

But domestic assault victims of the 1980s owned a big advantage over today’s shooting victims: advocates, including many from women’s shelters, who publicized the problem and demanded a safer society. In 1987, Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft appointed a domestic violence task force to seek solutions. Other states also sought answers.

But today, victims of nonfatal shootings mostly stand alone.

No one in Kansas City has been pushing for changes in how these cases are handled. So, many gunmen roam free, aware that arrests are unlikely even if they shoot more people, just like batterers knew decades ago that they could get away with repeated assaults.

The key to reducing the complex domestic-violence problem, one expert said, was getting everyone engaged. Otherwise, “there’s no way to win,” said Michael Reagen, who was director of Missouri social services at the time and served as co-chairman of Ashcroft’s task force.

“You need some leadership and some followship,” Reagen said. “You gotta have people who care.”

Police recognized the issue. They had a huge stake in domestic violence, among the most dangerous calls for officers to handle. But even when police in the 1980s got victims to cooperate initially, the victims often backed out later, prompting prosecutors to drop charges.

“It was obvious we had to do something different,” said Larry Joiner, then Kansas City’s police chief who served as the task force’s other co-chairman.

The statewide task force got people talking about the problem at a high level and produced several successful recommendations, participants said.

That model could work again, Reagen said.

The recommendations likely would be different, but the process the same.

“At least you try to make a difference,” he said.

Joiner agreed.

“I don’t see how it would hurt to get people at the table,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Jay Nixon would be willing to create a task force to study the no-prosecution shooting problem in Missouri, a state becoming known for violence. For two years in a row it has topped the nation in the rate of black homicide victims.

Nixon declined to discuss The Star’s findings about nonfatal shootings. His communication’s director, Sam Murphey, said through an email that Nixon always has supported properly staffed and funded law enforcement agencies, and keeping crime victims informed and engaged.

“He will continue to stand up for both these critical priorities,” Murphey wrote.

A new mindset

In the 1980s, police officers in Missouri felt hopeless responding to 911 calls at the same homes over and over only to be turned away by assault victims too afraid or co-dependent on their abusers to cooperate, Joiner said.

One news story of the time detailed how police asked a woman whether she wanted to sign a complaint against her husband for breaking her nose. Remembering his threats, she said she could not.

Another story told how a 29-year-old eastern Jackson County woman endured nine years of beatings without calling police because she was afraid her abuser would kill her. She also thought police would not do anything unless they witnessed the abuse.

Back then, family violence often was viewed by society as a family issue, not a criminal act, Ashcroft said.

He knew that mindset needed to change. So he assembled the task force with more than a dozen leaders and members of occupations likely to bump up against domestic violence, such as nurses, teachers and social workers. They heard testimony across the state.

The hearings were a “draining and emotional experience for all of us,” Reagen said. “I can recall a number of incidents where we were numbed and stunned by what we were told.”

One domestic violence advocate recounted that police told an eastern Missouri woman they would take her baby away if she called them for help one more time. In another case, police told an abused woman she could press charges against her husband only if she had money.

The hearings were designed to determine the problem’s extent and devise changes that could help, said Reagen, now a chamber of commerce president in Naples, Fla. Task force members learned about the cycle of violence and how abused children were much more likely to become abusers themselves.

“It was absolutely flabbergasting to many of us,” he said. “Once you get into a violent culture, it sticks with you. … The women think they have no options.”

The task force’s recommendations included:

• Requiring police to immediately arrest abusers when evidence warranted.

• Holding suspects in jail until their first court appearances, usually scheduled for the next day. This would have a chilling effect on suspects and give victims the freedom to talk while their anger and injuries were fresh.

• Starting a pilot program in one or more cities using techniques and presumptions drastically different from the status quo.

Some of the task force’s proposals, such as mandatory arrests of domestic violence suspects, met resistance at first, Joiner said. Officers didn’t like losing their discretion.

“There was a reluctance, because that hadn’t been done in the past,” he said.

In the end, Joiner said, “Everyone put aside their concerns and said, ‘Let’s try this.’ ”

The efforts resulted in new legislation that reduced repeat offenses, increased prosecutions and convictions, and eventually created broad sympathy for domestic-violence victims.

Still, some police, prosecutors and judges didn’t immediately fall in line behind the changes, according to stories published in The Star in 1990.

“We’re talking about centuries of attitudes,” one domestic violence advocate explained. “Those attitudes don’t change overnight.”

Possible changes

Among other things, a task force on nonfatal shootings could advocate changes already within reach of police and prosecutors, experts say.

Panel members could recommend, for example, that Jackson County prosecutors find ways to routinely prosecute cases without cooperating victims if enough other evidence exists.

They could suggest that police keep investigating after victims refuse to cooperate, both to try to generate enough evidence to prosecute and to uncover helpful intelligence that could benefit other cases.

That already occurs with domestic-violence cases in Kansas City. Detectives fully investigate all of those cases and submit them to prosecutors. Those investigators say it’s not their place to decide which cases are prosecuted.

The task force also could draw on Missouri law, which allows prior statements from victims to be entered as evidence if the victims are present at trial. Police already videotape victims’ formal statements, but they could look for ways to record initial statements in case victims later refuse to go to Police Headquarters. Reluctant victims may need to be subpoenaed, but if they try to back off their statements, juries can hear their original words.

Another possible recommendation: Ask prosecutors to call witnesses to testify about the city’s harsh no-snitching culture and the fear of retaliation, just as experts do in some domestic-violence cases when they need to explain why victims aren’t cooperating.

One problem widely acknowledged in Jackson County by police, prosecutors and judges is that cases take too long to get to trial. The months and years of continuances make it much easier for victims and witnesses to move, change phone numbers, lose interest, get threatened or intimidated, or otherwise disappear.

A task force could explore ways to shorten the duration between arrest and trial, which would make the process more user-friendly for victims and witnesses and provide more immediate consequences for suspects.

Experts have long espoused that immediate consequences deter bad behavior. Even less serious punishment administered early is more effective than harsh penalties administered later, research has shown. Just spending one night in jail was often enough of a deterrent to make domestic-violence abusers think twice before acting out, police said.

Along these lines, St. Louis last year boosted bail tenfold for weapons offenses, particularly for young suspects, to convey early in their criminal careers that the legal system treats gun-related crimes seriously.

Suspects caught carrying an illegal gun get hit with $30,000 cash-only bonds the day they are caught. They often don’t get out of jail until their trials, which can strand them behind bars for weeks or months. The high bonds also encourage suspects to plead guilty to get freed faster, which clears up clogged dockets.

After St. Louis boosted those bail amounts, homicides dropped 20 percent. Several other cities borrowed the idea.

As it stands in Kansas City, some illegal gun cases are handled in city court, where defendants get bonds averaging $500. Cases that go to state court often see bonds averaging $5,000 to $10,000, of which most defendants only have to post a small percentage. Some homicide cases in Jackson County now draw lower bonds than illegal gun cases in St. Louis.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has been researching St. Louis’ bail program to see whether it’s something that could be replicated in Kansas City.

Philadelphia remedies

Ideas from other cities also could prove helpful to a task force trying to develop a Kansas City master plan.

Philadelphia — plagued with violent crime, 324 homicides last year and a “no-snitch” culture — added nearly $500,000 to a witness relocation fund and offered to pay businesses half the cost of installing digital security cameras.

The city also plans to add 50 more street surveillance cameras to the 120 already installed. Prosecutors and judges also are dropping a hammer on witness intimidation.

A 25-year-old man was jailed on a $1 million bond in 2010 after he used Facebook to threaten a key witness in a friend’s murder trial. He named the witness, then implored his 187 Facebook friends to take action against such witnesses.

“Philadelphia,” the man wrote, “We must get it together and kill all rat.”

A judge there sentenced a woman to jail last year after she made a throat-slashing motion at a witness who was testifying.

Witness intimidation used to surface mainly in Philadelphia homicide cases but now pops up in all violent crime cases, said Tasha Jamerson of the city’s District Attorney’s Office.

A U.S. senator and the Philadelphia district attorney recently pushed for legislation to make witness intimidation a federal crime.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make witnesses feel safe,” Jamerson said. “We can’t prosecute these perpetrators unless we have cooperation from these witnesses.”

Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s mayor also offered $20,000 rewards, which he called a “bounty,” for information that solves homicides. As many as 10 people already have stepped forward, said Michael Resnick, the mayor’s public safety director.

Jackson County hasn’t seen the level of intimidation plaguing Philadelphia, officials said. But it does happen.

Witnesses seem concerned but seldom report threats, said Marilyn Layton, who works as a victim’s advocate for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office. Layton is among seven county advocates who help victims and witnesses once charges have been filed.

Jackson County hasn’t used Missouri’s relocation program since 1998, said Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors haven’t been able to prove a credible threat in a case since then, he said, and many victims and witnesses don’t want to leave their homes and cut ties with close friends and family.

But there have been times when prosecutors took money from their budget to send witnesses out of state temporarily, including this spring when they had to help a witness in a homicide case escape threats.

Missouri has a law against witness intimidation. Prosecutors file at least one case a month, Mansur said, but they often are related to domestic violence cases.

Many intimidations and threats may fly under the radar. Layton recalled a case where a man who survived a shooting that killed his friend promised his friend’s mother he would testify. But when the trial date arrived, the man had “disappeared,” Layton said.

He had never complained about any harassment.

“We could help, if we knew about it,” she said.

Layton said she would like to be able to build stronger relationships with her clients to help them weather any difficulties they face in their neighborhoods. But her office needs more staff to do that.

“Just keeping up with them is a job,” Layton said. “If they want to get lost, they can and they do.”

‘Win back the trust’

Austin and Denver enjoy low violent-crime rates and high victim cooperation, partly due to the extensive service they provide to victims, officials say.

In Kansas City, meanwhile, police offer few follow-up services for victims, said Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté. He’s not surprised they’ve gotten the impression no one cares.

In recent decades, just one Police Department employee has performed a victim advocacy role, and she did it part-time. Basically, she mailed information packets describing state financial aid to the designated next of kin for homicide victims, Forté said.

Years ago, Forté recognized the deficiency. Within 72 hours of being named chief in October, he started a Victim Assistance/Witness Support/Crime Prevention Division. The division, in its organizational phase, currently has three employees. Forté envisions that it eventually will employ a dozen officers and civilians in addition to using volunteers.

Trust between law enforcement and the public is key to reducing violent crime, Forté said.

“It’s about building relationships before we need information,” he said. “It’s about showing people you care.”

Overcoming a problem that has festered in Kansas City for decades will require new ideas and best practices that involve the entire community, national experts said.

Faith in the justice system is “easy to erode and very difficult to build,” said Patrick Carr, a researcher from Rutgers University who has studied victim cooperation with police for more than a decade.

Fortunately, Carr said, the really violent members of society are not the majority. And it’s in the best interest of people in the community to have them removed.

“You have to create counter narratives to the ones that exist now, which are that people can shoot people and get away with it,” Carr said. “Police have to win back the trust of your community, or you’re going nowhere. And the police have to be the ones who step up first and make the overtures.”

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

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