It’s a statistic that Kansas City law enforcement officials are pleased to see but loath to trumpet too loudly just yet.
The deaths of 34 people, after all, are nothing to celebrate.
But in a city resigned to year after year after year of 100-plus homicides, those 34 killings in the first six months of 2014 put Kansas City on pace for its lowest annual homicide total since 1967.
As of June 30, killings were down 31 percent from the same time last year.
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“I’m satisfied that we’re making progress,” said Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté. “I’m not satisfied at where we are. Thirty-four senseless deaths is still way too high.”
Coincidence or not, the decrease comes during the first months of a sweeping reorganization in the way the Kansas City Police Department fights violent crime, and follows the first full year of the ambitious and multifaceted Kansas City No Violence Alliance, which launched January 2013.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James also praised Forté and his officers for changing their approach to community relations with an eye toward boosting community-police cooperation.
Though they are encouraged and hopeful, officials aren’t ready to attribute the decrease to what they are doing.
They will acknowledge, however, that they are taking a “dramatically different” approach to addressing violent crime.
“We’re not doing the same as we’ve done every other year,” said Kansas City police Capt. Joe McHale, the project manager for the No Violence Alliance.
Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, said that officials, while encouraged, want to see where the homicide total stands at the end of the year.
“Then we might be able to think it’s related to what we are doing,” he said.
While Kansas City’s homicide rate has gone down, other cities that Kansas City looks at as demographic peers have seen increases.
St. Louis has 62 homicides compared with 50 at the same time last year. Indianapolis has seen an increase to 76 so far in 2014, compared with 73 at the same point last year.
Across the state line in Kansas City, Kan., the 16 homicides so far this year match the 16 at the same time in 2013.
The No Violence Alliance — KC NoVA for short — is a partnership that unites local and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, the mayor’s office, probation and parole officials, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, clergy, social service agencies and community members, including the mothers of homicide victims.
Modeled on successful crime prevention efforts in other cities, it seeks to identify and target the individuals and their associates who are responsible for the majority of violent crimes.
The members of those criminal groups are subjected to increased law enforcement attention when they engage in violence. If one member of the group commits a violent act, they and the people they run with all feel the heat.
“Violence is a hot stove, and if you touch the hot stove, you’re going to get burned,” McHale said of the strategy known as “focused deterrence.”
To enhance the effort, Forté has poured manpower resources into the department’s violent crimes division. Dozens of detectives and uniformed officers are now focusing on the individuals and groups identified as “NoVA targets.” One squad is dedicated to working up cases involving felons in possession of firearms for federal prosecution.
The department also has established a violent crimes intelligence squad, uniting experienced gang, homicide and narcotics detectives to gather information about ongoing feuds and trends on the street. The information is being shared throughout the department with an eye to preventing violent acts.
But NoVA goes beyond getting the most dangerous and active criminals off the street. It also offers social services to those on the periphery of criminal groups who want a way out of that life.
About 100 people are now receiving services that include anger management counseling, employment training and job placement assistance, housing, transportation, and treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems.
NoVA advocates and police officers have made more than 1,000 home visits to meet with and assess the needs of people identified through NoVA’s intelligence-gathering efforts.
James said a NoVA program that works with juveniles, started this summer, is particularly promising.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said the NoVA effort is constantly being analyzed to learn what is working and what can be done better.
And while NoVA’s primary focus is the reduction of homicides, the effort to identify and target killers may also be having some unintended benefits that Baker said she finds “immensely encouraging.”
Other serious crimes are significantly down, including rape, robbery, burglary, and both aggravated and non-aggravated assaults.
“It makes sense,” Baker said. “What we’ve learned is that a relatively small number of people are committing most of the crimes. We are going after them with a great big stick.”
Another benefit from the lower number of homicides is that detectives have more time to work on cases, and that may be reflected in a higher rate of solved crimes than in past years. So far this year, police said they have cleared or solved 68 percent of homicides. Last year’s clearance rate was 55 percent.
Officials know that the positive downward trend in homicides so far in 2014 could quickly be undone by one violent stretch. Chicago, which is also on pace for its lowest homicide total since the early 1960s, had a particularly bloody Fourth of July weekend with more than 80 shootings, including at least a dozen homicides.
In Kansas City, eight people were wounded in shooting incidents over the same weekend. None of them suffered life-threatening injuries, but bullets that hit arms or legs could just as easily have struck heads or torsos.
And the city is still facing what are historically the most murderous months of the year.
“We still have so much more to do,” Baker said. “But I believe that the streets are taking notice.”
With 34 homicides during the first six months of 2014, Kansas City is on pace to have its lowest number of homicides since 66 was the year’s total in 1967. The city has recorded 100 or more homicides in 36 of the 46 years since then.
Homicide totals after first six months:
2010 — 48
2011 — 47
2012 — 47
2013 — 49
2014 — 34