Young suspects have been charged in two of the Kansas City region’s most violent and high-profile crimes so far this year.
The four men accused of killing Shawnee gun shop owner Jon Bieker Jan. 9 in a robbery gone bad range in age from 18 to 20. Three lived in Kansas City and one in Raytown.
Three other teenagers, a 17-year-old and two18-year-olds from Kansas City, face murder charges in the death of 14-year-old Alexis Kane. She was beaten, shot and abandoned at a south Kansas City water park on Jan. 11.
These are the crimes one would expect of hardened criminals, and in fact several of the suspects had been charged previously with felony offenses.
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What’s more alarming is that they are not alone in their age group. Kansas City police have identified almost 200 young people who are connected to groups associated with crimes such as shootings, armed assaults, robberies and weapons trafficking.
About half of the teenagers are 16 and younger, and a few are as young as 13, said Police Maj. Joe McHale, commander of the violent crime enforcement division. Unlike gangs of the past, they aren’t clustered in a particular neighborhood or part of the city. Rather, they connect through social media from far and wide.
“If we don’t deal with it, it’s going to get ugly,” McHale said.
He is absolutely right. Fortunately, strategies used last year to reduce homicides and other violent crimes are anticipated to also have a positive effect on the younger population.
Criminologists have long recognized that adolescents are more impulsive and emotionally volatile than adults. They are more likely to take risks and focus on short-term rewards instead of long-term consequences.
That knowledge makes a compelling case for aggressive intervention. Criminologists point to an “age crime curve,” which shows that people who can be dissuaded from violent acts as teenagers aren’t as likely to engage in violent offenses as adults.
“There are things we can do in prevention to help some of these kids get to that point,” said Andrew Fox, a University of Missouri-Kansas City criminology professor who works with Kansas City police.
Kansas City finished 2014 with 78 murders, its lowest number in years. Shootings and other types of violent crimes were down, too. While no one can pinpoint for certain what caused the improvement, police collaborated with prosecutors, federal law enforcement agencies, UMKC professors and social workers in a “focused deterrence” program called the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.
The program identifies persons likely to commit violent crimes and others in their “circles.” Those individuals are targeted for intervention, either through assistance and services or through aggressive law enforcement. The idea is if key people in the circles leave the criminal lifestyle, voluntarily or otherwise, others will follow.
McHale, project manager for the alliance, said it will apply the same general strategies to young people. Parents and guardians will receive letters telling them their children have been connected to a network involved with violence. Police will follow up with visits as will “client advocates,” who will offer assistance such as substance abuse treatment and family counseling.
Teenagers who don’t respond to the gentler kind of persuasion may be targeted for aggressive law enforcement actions that could land them in jail — sweeps for drugs or illegal firearms, for instance.
Those are sound strategies, but more is needed.
It was encouraging to see Mayor Sly James transfer $60,000 from his office budget to “Teens in Transition,” a summer program operated through the No Violence Alliance. It offers creative work opportunities and counseling to selected teenagers at risk for violence.
The city must also find resources to again offer summer recreation programs that provide middle- and high-school students with something to do on weekend nights other than forming large crowds in public places. Some teenagers associated with violent groups have been involved in sporadic unrest around the Country Club Plaza and a large disturbance at the Independence Center Mall in December, police say.
Also, school systems and social service networks must work together on their own strategies for intervening with youth who are at risk for violence.
A unified front is needed to reclaim young lives and gain control of a problem that could cause violent crimes in Kansas City to rocket upward.