Kansas City has counted 35 homicides so far in 2017, compared to 29 at the same time a year ago.
The violence in parts of the city keeps getting worse and worse. One City Council member even witnessed a rolling gun fight Tuesday evening. It was just one example, City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, said of the “mindless” gun battles in the city’s neighborhoods.
After more than a year of study, a citizens task force on Thursday rolled out numerous suggestions to address the chronic violence problem.
The task force called for better coordination of youth and community services, a full-time city staffer assigned to anti-violence efforts, and robust engagement and mentoring from civic and business leaders.
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At least one task force member was skeptical that the report would make any difference, unless a sustained group stays engaged and keeps the topic on the front burner.
“This isn’t going to be solved by one commission in one year,” said task force member Rodney Knott, who has served on other anti-violence commissions in recent years. He works with young African-American men in the community to empower them through education and employment.
“My fear is that it’ll just pass on, like it always does,” he said. Knott said the “culture of violence” needs to be addressed with a sustained public service and public health campaign that makes violence unacceptable, the way prior campaigns worked to reduce smoking and drunk driving.
City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who chaired the task force, vowed it will be a sustained effort and an ongoing priority.
The task force report also made that point.
“It is important to note the overarching theme through all the task force meetings is that violence is a long-term community problem that will require long-term community solutions,” the group said in its five-page letter to Mayor Sly James.
“Accordingly, the task force has included long-term policy recommendations coupled with short-term tools that can be employed immediately to empower the community to leverage the good work that is already taking place.”
James held a news conference Thursday to unveil the long-awaited recommendations.
“It’s going to take hard work to solve it and change it,” James acknowledged. “We’re going to start working on this stuff immediately.”
Although the problem has been building for years, James said the recommendations are a good blueprint and set of action steps to move forward.
But he also said it’s not just something for City Hall to solve.
“The only way this issue changes and gets better is when we get the entire city mobilized behind the effort to change it, and that’s exactly what I think these recommendations do.”
James established the Citizens Task Force on Violence back in November 2015 and hoped for recommendations within a year. But it took longer than that, as the group held 12 public meetings plus numerous subgroup listening sessions and meetings.
In addition to Justus, the task force included about 16 other citizens with a variety of skill sets, including education, law, social work, marketing, neighborhood activism, and people directly affected by violent crime. They also heard from numerous groups working on anti-violence initiatives.
When James appointed the group, he cited lots of progress in the city, including economic development momentum and the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. Still, he remained disheartened by “persistent and senseless violence” including guns, domestic violence and child abuse.
But even while the task force has been meeting, Kansas City’s violent crime problem has gotten worse, not better. The city had 111 homicides in 2015 and 129 in 2016. The count in 2016 was the highest since 2008, but so far this year, the homicide rate is on pace to be even higher.
Councilwoman Canady, who witnessed the rolling gun battle, was a task force member. On Tuesday evening, she was preparing to enter a corner store at 57th Street and Swope Parkway when she had to duck down in her car as gunshots rang out right nearby. She learned later that a 7-year-old boy was grazed by a bullet, and the police are investigating.
She wasn’t sure what solution exists for that type of reckless gun-slinging, but the task force found lots of good crime prevention work is already underway. It include numerous recommendations to build on those efforts.
“Kansas City has all the tools right now to address these issues,” Justus said, adding that those tools need to be better coordinated and leveraged for real impact.
One task force member said that, because the group was headed by two City Council members, she is confident the recommendations would move forward.
“This is not going to be something that gets put on the shelf, and that is the best part,” said Judy Sherry, founder and president of Missouri-Kansas Grandparents Against Gun Violence.
“These issues are so systematic when you talk about poverty, homelessness and hunger and all that community faces. It has got to take everybody. It takes a village for sure, and I think people are beginning to understand it.”
Another task force member said the recommendations would encourage the city’s different anti-violence groups to work together, which isn’t happening enough yet.
“It can be different if we come together,” said Rosilyn Temple, executive director of KC Mothers in Charge, a group of mothers whose children have been murdered. “We have to work together, and that is what we are not doing. We are not really speaking or talking to each other.”
Among the recommendations for better coordination and comprehensive strategies:
▪ Fund and implement a comprehensive Youth Master Plan.
▪ Work with the city’s federal congressional delegation to secure a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the recent homicide increase, including a public health response to homicides in the city.
▪ Pursue state legislation to create interagency domestic violence fatality review teams, which the task force said is a nationally recognized method for addressing the problem.
▪ Create a full-time city staff position to coordinate violence prevention efforts. James said that position is already budgeted in the new fiscal year starting May 1.
▪ Establish storefront community resource centers, like those in Ivanoe and the West Side as well as the Reconciliation Services at 31st Street and Troost Avenue, that are places where residents can access a variety of social and neighborhood services.
▪ Establish an electronic database for community and social service resources, because while many assets exist, too often they aren’t known about or coordinated. Justus said a one-stop database could direct people to whatever kind of help they need, and it’s already in the early phases of development.
▪ Establish a robust public engagement and mentoring program with civic and business leaders, plus a public service campaign to address the “culture of violence” that Knott highlighted.
The task force specifically noted that it was not offering recommendations about the prevalence of guns in Kansas City.
“State and federal law prevents Missouri cities from enacting any regulations relating to firearms,” the task force said.” However, the group acknowledged the “devastating effect” of guns and urged community leaders to “include gun safety and gun education” in public service and public health campaigns.