Yael T. Abouhalkah

Lack of City Council leadership on murders takes its toll

Updated: 2014-02-27T00:31:02Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Some people binge-view “House of Cards” on Netflix. That’s entertainment.

I recently binge-watched more than 45 hours of Kansas City Council Public Safety and Emergency Services Committee meetings from all of 2013 and early 2014. That was depressing.

The review was part of The Star Opinion page’s closer look at homicides, to see who’s providing leadership among police, elected officials and community groups to battle the city’s appalling murder rate.

The four City Council members most accountable on this crucial issue — John Sharp, Jermaine Reed, Michael Brooks and Scott Taylor — aren’t serving the public as well as they could, especially regarding the use of tax dollars in this area.

The public safety committee in 2013 spent just 6 percent of its time talking about homicides.

And 2014 has started off almost as abysmally, with only two substantial murder discussions in the first two months.

One occurred Wednesday, as Sharp complained about a Sunday editorial pointing out the infrequency of the panel’s homicide discussions in 2013.

But give credit to Major Rick Smith, the new leader of East Patrol, for responding to Brooks’ question for what needs to happen in the future. For one thing, Smith said, murder for a long time has deserved more discussion in Kansas City.

Hallelujah.

In a Star op-ed on Wednesday, Sharp defended his committee’s work, saying it did important work on a range of ordinances to improve public safety. That’s demonstrably true. And extremely misleading.

The committee’s lack of zeal on murder issues prevents the members from giving the best possible advice to the full council about how to effectively spend taxpayer dollars for this high priority.

A glaring example occurred just last week.

Aim4Peace representatives appeared before a council business session to tout their program, which aims to break the cycle of violence by changing the behavior of people living in high-crime areas. The city contributes several hundred thousand dollars a year to the program; the Health Department is in charge of it.

Gary Slutkin, the national director of the program that spawned Aim4Peace, spoke enthusiastically of positive results in Kansas City and elsewhere.

Here’s the catch, he told the council: Kansas City needs to spend about $5 million a year to do the job correctly, but the whole program gets just over $1 million.

Taylor said that, if the city had the funds, “we’d love to put more money in it.”

Sharp concluded the more than hour-long presentation by saying that allocating extra dollars to Aim4Peace would help reduce violence in the city.

So should taxpayers spend more on Aim4Peace, even though it still has many detractors? Did public safety committee members have a recommendation to provide the full council at this opportune time, just weeks before it’s set to approve the $1.4 billion 2014-2015 budget?

No, they didn’t, and for a very good reason.

During all of 2013, the public safety committee heard a couple of times from Aim4Peace representatives, yet spent precious little effort digging into whether the program’s outcomes were appropriate for the money already being used for it and — most importantly — whether Kansas City should spend a lot more on it.

That meant last week’s council meeting was more of a show than a serious effort to get council members to examine whether Aim4Peace is worth even more public investment instead of, say, giving police anti-violence programs more money.

In a nutshell, that was pretty much par for the course when it comes to the desultory performance of the public safety committee on the topic of murders and the use of tax dollars to reduce them.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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