Aim4Peace program attacks violent crime in Kansas City, with mixed results

05/30/2014 7:01 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

Kansas Citians are used to seeing their Police Department pursue programs aimed at reducing the city’s high murder and violent crime rates. But in recent years, city Health Director Rex Archer has entered the battle.

“This is a disease issue, not just crime and punishment,” Archer says.

Archer and other supporters of his department’s Aim4Peace program offer a valid contention: The city must try to prevent the spread of retaliatory violence, which Archer and others call a learned behavior by people often modeling actions of parents or friends.

The preferred approach to the matter has some merit, too. Aim4Peace uses conflict mediation to try to bring calm to potentially violent situations, whether at a barber shop, at a hospital after a clash between gangs or on the streets.

Aim4Peace’s “violence interrupters” work in high-crime neighborhoods. They attempt to make violence less of an acceptable behavior. That’s a worthwhile endeavor in a city where an estimated 50 percent of violent crimes result from an argument or retaliation.

The program, however, does have detractors. And for legitimate reasons.

It’s often mocked, even by some elected officials, as a feel-good waste of money, with high-minded but still nebulous goals. Mayor Sly James and the City Council support the program with a small amount of funding each year, but have declined to rapidly expand it.

The reluctance is understandable. It has a small staff (starting the year with about a dozen on-the-street workers) and has mostly worked in a tiny part of the East Side. So it has not had a major effect on the city’s overall murder rate.

Its outreach workers do not share information with the Police Department. That may boost credibility with criminals or crime victims, but it puts the program out of sync with other efforts.

Perhaps most notably, Aim4Peace is such a radical departure from the usual lock ’em up mentality of crime-fighting that it’s bound to attract criticism unless it has a long-term effect on violent crime rates, including murder.

Earlier this year, Gary Slutkin visited Kansas City to trumpet programs like Aim4Peace; he is credited nationally with spearheading efforts to treat violent crime as a public health menace.

“We should use every weapon in our arsenal,” Slutkin told the City Council.

That’s a reasonable point. The city spends more than $215 million a year on its Police Department. So there’s plenty of continued emphasis on protecting Kansas Citians, including the use of a new program, the No Violence Alliance, a collaboration of law enforcement agencies to put pressure on criminals, their family and their friends to avoid violence.

It’s too soon to credit any particular effort, but Kansas City’s murder rate is thankfully trending down so far this year.

As of Saturday afternoon, eight persons had died violently in May, although the Police Department officially recorded seven homicides. Because of a policy change in which officer-involved shootings are no longer factored into homicide totals, the death of U.S. Army veteran Isaac Sims, 26, is not included in the department’s count.

That leaves police with an official total of 28 homicides in 2014, down from 35 at this point last year and 42 the year before.

May’s victims included Consuaila Braden-Hughes, the fourth woman murdered in Kansas City this year. Hal D. Cornell, whose stepson has been charged with his murder, is the second man in his 70s to die at the hands of another.

Although 57 percent of the homicide victims so far in 2014 have been black males, that was only the case with three victims in May.

Alfadil Sabil, 38, a Sudanese immigrant, was murdered in an apartment he shared with friends. Michael McLellan, 42, was found dead from a gunshot wound in his Midtown apartment. Michael Dawkins, 55, was shot while walking near Holmes Street and Linwood Boulevard.

Two Hispanic men were among the month’s victims. Antonio Damian Calderon, 24, was run down by a vehicle after an argument. Ludy Cruz, 41, was shot to death last weekend in a hotel parking lot.

As Kansas City looks to prevent more of these murders, Aim4Peace remains a small but potentially crucial way to change the mindset of Kansas Citians involved in a cycle of retaliatory violence.

Supporters of Aim4Peace include the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City as well as the federal Department of Justice, which recently gave the program a three-year, $1.2 million grant to expand.

On Friday, Police Chief Darryl Forté said Aim4Peace reaches people who “do not trust” police. “I see great value in what they do,” he added. “We need — the city needs — their continued support and contributions. It’s going to take many angles to reel in some of these crime issues.”

Council member John Sharp, Archer and other boosters of Aim4Peace say it needs more public funding to spread the message that violent crime must be looked at as a huge public health threat in Kansas City.

However, before that’s likely to happen, Aim4Peace will have to show more long-term positive results in reducing murders and other violent crimes where it is operating. The planned expansion using federal funds should provide an opportunity to do just that.

If that effort succeeds in the next few years, many skeptics will be hushed. More importantly, Kansas City will be a safer city.

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