Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker didn’t mince words when she announced charges last month against two Kansas City men accused of killing 3-year-old Amorian S.L. Hale.
The root of the homicide was retaliation, she said. Investigators believe three Kansas City men planned and carried out an assault-style attack on a home in the 6700 block of Walrond Avenue in May 2015 because they suspected someone in the home had been involved in the murder of D’Shawn Marchbanks four months earlier.
A high-powered bullet struck Amorian in the head as he slept.
Marchbanks’ brother, Dominque Marchbanks, 24, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting, as is Sulif Wilkins, 26. SirTerry Stevenson, 23, was charged last year.
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“This was about retaliation. That is what this case is about, and beyond that I cannot make any more sense of it,” Peters Baker said.
It was unusual to see a prosecutor speak so candidly about retaliation. And useful. Payback is a central factor in Kansas City’s homicide problem.
Peters Baker sees it all the time. “My victims one day are my defendants another day,” she said. “I’m not trying to besmirch my victims. It’s just a reality.”
Retaliation has always been part of the criminal tableau. Think of “West Side Story.” But it has become a governing creed in violence-prone places like Kansas City.
Generations of young men have grown up with a distrust of police and the criminal justice system. Their ethos is to take care of problems within their own circle, even if that circle may change from week to week.
“One of the last things that comes to mind is that you call the police,” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Social media has raised the stakes. Information that appears on Facebook and Instagram is incendiary and often false, but people fueled by anger and machismo react to it quickly.
Police for too long cleaned up after retaliatory violence without making efforts to stop it. Fortunately, that’s changing in Kansas City.
The Kansas City No Violence Alliance project, or KC NoVA, has collected extensive data on criminal groups and their activities and has begun mining it to predict whether certain shootings might provoke retaliation. Patrol officers and detectives also contribute information.
If police suspect that a homicide or armed assault could provoke retaliation, they conduct an intervention or “custom notification.”
Usually this involves paying a visit to people and delivering the same ultimatum that KC NoVA makes when it periodically invites individuals prone to violence to a “call in.”
The message: “Leave the criminal lifestyle and we’ll help you with jobs, school or whatever services you need. Stay on the wrong side and we’ll be watching your every move.”
“It’s about giving people a choice and fair warning of the consequences of their actions,” Novak said. “You will get some people to listen and you will reduce retaliatory violence to some extent.”
Often police will enlist people in the community, like pastors or members of KC Mothers in Charge, a group of parents who have lost children to homicides, to join them in the notifications.
Another anti-retaliation effort, Aim4Peace, operates out of the Kansas City Health Department. Using the rationale that violence is a disease, workers try to prevent it by teaching conflict resolution skills through street outreach and violence prevention programs in high-crime neighborhoods. They also work at Truman Medical Center’s emergency room, seeking to calm emotions after shootings and other crimes.
The program is funded through a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and contributions from Kansas City and local foundations.
It is controversial, in part because its workers don’t share information with police and in part because it has always struggled to present reliable metrics that show it is slowing down violence.
Asked if she thought Aim4Peace were successful, Peters Baker said, “I don’t like that I can’t answer that question. I’d sure like them to be.”
Tracie McClendon-Cole, who oversees the program, points to high numbers of street interventions and good attendance at violence prevention sessions as evidence that Aim4Peace is doing its job.
Similar “cure violence” programs have been praised in other cities, and could be a useful complement to ongoing law enforcement measures. But a better rapport appears to be needed here.
The No Violence Alliance has done a good job of forging ties between community members and law enforcement. Sustaining that partnership will be crucial to changing the deep-seated mindset that victims of violence and their associates and family members should “take care of things” with gunfire.
“We are saying, ‘let us have a chance,’” Peters Baker said. “We can’t allow those who are on the receiving end at some time or another to be decision makers as to whether they choose to prosecute or not.”