The Kansas City No Violence Alliance was kicking into gear on the city’s streets this summer when the streets started kicking back.
After months of gathering information about and mapping the relationships between members of the city’s most active criminal groups, the KC NoVa staff was confronted with an upsurge in shootings and homicides attributed to people they had not accounted for.
They soon realized that the data they had compiled did not include people returning to the streets after long prison sentences.
“That kicked off a whole bunch of violence this summer,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, a member of KC NoVa’s governing board.
It was one of the lessons learned by the leaders of the city’s new and unprecedented effort to cut violent crime, which started 2013 with cautious optimism.
Twelve months later they are confronting yet another year with a Kansas City homicide count topping the century mark.
Disappointing, yes. But those committed to the success of KC NoVa say they are far from discouraged.
They believe that the groundwork laid and lessons learned in 2013 can produce a measurable reduction in violent crime in the coming year.
No less an expert than David Kennedy — one of the original designers of the “focused deterrence” crime prevention strategy that KC NoVa is based on and that has been successful in other cities — believes the Kansas City effort is poised for a “smashing success.”
“We have a moral imperative to go do this,” said Baker. “We absolutely need to see a reduction in violent crime.”
The idea behind focused deterrence is simple.
Police and prosecutors focus on the small number of people responsible for the majority of violent crimes. Those same people also tend to be those at most risk to fall victim to violence.
Often, those people are affiliated with gangs or loosely organized criminal groups. They and their associates are told that violence no longer will be tolerated.
But along with that law enforcement stick comes a carrot of social services help for those seeking a chance to escape from the criminal life.
Though the concept is simple, focused deterrence requires a broad collaborative effort and the commitment of key area leaders.
Kansas City leaders believe they have achieved that.
Besides Baker, the KC NoVa governing board includes Mayor Sly James; Police Chief Darryl Forté; U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson; Jackie Dunn, regional administrator for the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole; Leo Morton, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City; and the special agents in charge of the Kansas City offices of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Area religious leaders and members of various community and neighborhood groups also are working with KC NoVa.
“All of us are committed to this effort,” Baker said. “All of us want to see this work.”
Kansas City had never seen all of those entities working together in such a coordinated way, they say.
“It’s a huge paradigm shift,” Dickinson said. “We’re doing things very, very differently.”
The first step was to identify the individuals in the criminal groups and how they are connected to each other within those groups. Using intelligence from Kansas City police and other law enforcement sources, professors from UMKC used sophisticated computer software to map out those criminal networks.
KC NoVa’s first target group was a small one, containing about 360 people.
They, and the rest of the city, were introduced to KC NoVa last January with a coordinated police sweep targeting members of that group who were facing arrest warrants and parole violations. Two of the arrests were for recent homicides, officials said at that time. Several other members of that group had become homicide victims before the sweep was conducted.
Soon after, KC NoVa conducted its first call-in. People identified as having key positions among members of the group were invited to a meeting where leaders gave them the message of no more violence. Other call-in speakers included community activists, former offenders and women whose children have been murder victims.
Those attending were invited to meet with representatives from social service agencies who were on hand to help with things like job training, substance abuse and mental health issues, housing and education. Nearly 100 people have begun the assessment process to determine their needs, while 45 are now receiving social services help.
For the rest of the year, KC NoVa has followed the same pattern, identifying and targeting different and larger groups for enhanced enforcement and call-ins.
Along the way they have learned some lessons that they believe will help them be more effective.
After the midyear uptick in violence, KC NoVa adjusted. Now members of the targeted groups who are about to get out of prison are paid a visit and told: “We know who you are and we are watching you,” said Capt. Joe McHale, KC NoVa project manager.
Along with that, they are provided information about social services available to help with their re-entry into the community.
“We are really going to be paying attention to their needs,” McHale said.
A special squad of Kansas City police is now working with probation and parole officials to find and arrest those who violate conditions of their probation or parole.
Since Oct. 1, McHale said, 187 probation and parole violation arrests have been made.
In another effort to improve the program, the KC NoVa staff recently traveled to New York to meet with Kennedy and his staff at the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“It was very encouraging,” Baker said.
Kennedy’s team suggested several changes that KC NoVa is working to implement. One will involve the makeup of people subject to call-ins. Members of multiple groups will be invited to the same call-ins. Previous call-ins involved members of the same group.
The Rev. Rodney Williams, pastor of Swope Parkway United Christian Church, has attended some of the call-ins and heard community feedback about KC NoVa. Williams said people are becoming more aware of and supportive of what KC NoVa is trying to do.
“They’ve built a good foundation,” Williams said. “From the faith-based perspective, I see this as the hand of God moving in the community, bringing so many entities together for one common cause.”