The conversations go like this:
An inmate nearing the end of his or her prison sentence is called to a meeting. A Kansas City police detective, a parole officer and an advocate for the inmate pull up chairs.
Their tone is firm, the players say, but genuine and not threatening. The inmate’s criminal record, along with his or her disciplinary file while incarcerated, is flipped open.
Detective Chad Pickens gets to the point. Everyone is there to help the inmate. An often-cited mantra begins: This core team is committed to seeing that the inmate stays alive, safe and out of prison upon release.
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“If they truly want the help,” Pickens said, “we are here.”
Then the detective explains the new game in town. While the inmate was locked up, Kansas City police instituted a sweeping change in how they approach crime in the city. KC NoVa stands for Kansas City No Violence Alliance. It’s a collaboration between police, the prosecutor’s office and criminology experts. And, with this prison visit, Missouri corrections officials are signing on, too.
KC NoVa is based on the belief that about 1 percent of the city’s population is responsible for three-quarters of its violent crime. If police focus on those people and whoever is within their social networks, crime rates should drop.
And guess what, Pickens continues, you, the inmate, have been identified as part of a group of people with members who are primed for violence, one of more than 60 such social networks that KC NoVa is tracking.
The prison visits began in late February, with a focus on inmates who are about 90 days away from being released. About a dozen inmates have gone through the sit-downs. Police are beginning to visit 21 prisons and two release sites under this new phase of NoVa. The plan is to connect with about 50 inmates by the end of the year.
The move to enter prisons addresses a gap that wasn’t recognized initially when NoVa began nearly three years ago. The intricate mapping of criminal social networks offered promise almost from the outset. It let police and prosecutors focus on the most violent criminals. But in the summer of 2013, police realized they’d overlooked parolees who were causing havoc on the streets. People exiting prison were back to their old habits and rebuilding alliances. After an initial drop in homicides and shootings, the numbers had spiked.
As Jean Peters Baker, Jackson County prosecutor, noted, the most effective time for NoVa to begin building relationships with inmates is “before their feet hit free soil.”
In February, a core crew of the NoVa staff pitched the idea of going into the prisons. Wardens from the state’s many prisons were gathered in Jefferson City. The response was overwhelmingly supportive.
“We know this works,” said Jordan Elbert, a probation and parole officer assigned to the NoVa task force. “We want NoVa to be successful in making Kansas City safer.”
Path to change
Pickens has one of the most seemingly conflicted roles. He needs to convince understandably wary inmates that this time, police really are on their side. Pickens presses them to consider, “When is the last time that a police officer has offered you assistance?”
Genuine concern for the inmate’s well-being is expressed, he said, repeatedly. After all, anyone identified by NoVa could easily become a victim of violence, if not the next homicide in the city, simply because of who they hang around with.
But there are also firm reminders, that once released, choices must be made.
Pickens makes it clear that the consequences will be swift if the inmate reverts to crime upon release. Kansas City police and the Jackson County prosecutor’s office will be on not only them, but all of their associates. But, if they are willing and wish to invest in themselves, help exists to ease them down a positive path.
This is where Andre Carson takes over. After the first portion of the meeting, the inmate is left alone with Carson, who acts as a client advocate. His is a more confidential discussion. He’s there to build a relationship, discussing what temptations, relationships or other problems might trip this particular inmate up and edge him or her back to the life of crime. Carson completes a needs assessment, checking for what help the parolee might need to transition out of prison. That might be anger control classes, help enrolling in job training or a drug or alcohol treatment program.
They’ll discuss influential family members, who they can lean on for support or who might be an instigator leading them back to crime.
As one inmate explained to Carson, his old neighborhood had to be avoided.
The inmate told Carson that if he moved back to the same street, “everything that got me here is on that block.”
With others, there is a family member — often a son or a daughter — whom the inmate doesn’t want to disappoint. The connection can be leverage Carson can be mindful of in supporting a parolee’s goals.
In other instances, the help Carson offers is simply a bus pass to reach a sobriety meeting. Or help getting a copy of a birth certificate to apply for a Social Security card to begin work. Basic skills of navigating daily life outside of prison, such as maintaining a calm demeanor when stressed, are often stumbling blocks.
“The thing that stops many of them from moving forward,” Carson said, “is the frustration.”
A few of the inmates visited so far had heard about NoVa. So the word’s out. And Carson is encouraged by the words of one man he recently counseled.
At the end of the session, the man said, “Tell those officers that I’m glad they came.”
NoVa works because people — whether they are law-abiding or criminal — are basically social creatures. We all have connections. Track the connections of the most violent and you might be able to disrupt their activities before they commit mayhem.
The approach began in other cities but was taken on in earnest locally under the vision of Baker and Police Chief Darryl Forté. Two criminology professors at the University of Missouri-Kansas City form an integral part of the NoVa team, using computers to create intricate diagrams of the social circles. They’ve plotted the associations of about 860 people, categorizing them into more than 60 social networks.
Police also monitor who is an influencer, a heavier player in instigating crime, and who is on the periphery. The social groups range in size from three to 40 people.
As new-age policing as that sounds, NoVa is also old school. Beat cops, officers who work the streets daily, are vital. They are the first and most likely to know what is happening within the various groups. That lead time allows police to know when a feud is brewing, when a violent act of retaliation is possible.
At its inception, the program was a unit of two officers and a supervisor. Now, NoVa is under the violent crimes enforcement division of the Police Department, with more than 70 officers assigned. NoVa’s core staff works out of the prosecutor’s office.
Adding in the cooperation of the state’s corrections systems was a next logical step. Parole officials haven’t previously coordinated information about how an inmate behaved while incarcerated with police and prosecutors. That’s just one of the many silos that are breaking down.
Most importantly, the program is becoming ingrained into the Police Department — a remarkable and not easily attained shift of police culture. That also ensures that it won’t go away with a change in who leads the department, or within the prosecutor’s office. And those targeted are getting that message. They often ask how to get out from under this hyper-focused scrutiny.
Pickens tells them: “You didn’t earn your reputation overnight, and you don’t get off this list overnight, either. It’s a daily process of bettering yourself.”