Kansas City’s homicide rate dropped in 2012

As a crude measure of public safety, Kansas City’s 2012 homicide statistics suggest the community is no more or less lethal than in any sustained period since 2000.

Kansas City closed the year with 108 homicides — six fewer than in 2011 but two more than 2010.

And 108 homicides is just one more than the city’s average annual total for the decade ending in 2009, during which the high was 127 in 2005 and the low 87 in 2002.

The modest decline in 2012 has given hope to some local officials, who, beginning in May, backed an aggressive anti-violence program that still fought for traction at year’s end.

“It’s premature to proclaim any victory when our numbers are this high,” Police Chief Darryl Forte said. “When I’ve watched so many families suffer, I’m not satisfied with a slight decrease in the numbers. It’s personal to me. Each homicide victim isn’t a number. It’s a person.”

The department announced last month that a declining percentage of homicides now occur in the city’s “hot spot” areas, urban core neighborhoods that once accounted for more than half the city’s killings.

As of mid-December, that percentage had fallen to about 40 percent, Forte noted. He pointed to the slight decline in overall homicide numbers as evidence that increased neighborhood enforcement wasn’t simply sending crime elsewhere.

“There’s hope out there,” Forte said. “People know we’re doing some things. The entire community is stepping up and asking, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”

For the metropolitan area, homicides topped 150 in 2012, according to Homicide KC, a website established by The Kansas City Star a year ago to track the investigations of area murders in Kansas and Missouri.

Kansas City worked on its homicide issues outside the national spotlight for the most part in 2012.

But a domestic violence-related murder/suicide in early December reminded the country that Kansas City’s place on the national homicide scene is larger than its population would suggest.

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Before Kasandra Perkins, 22, died the morning of Dec. 1, Kansas City police already had designated the motive behind seven 2012 killings as “domestic violence related.”

But because her killer was Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot himself in front of coaches and team officials at Arrowhead Stadium, news coverage of Perkins’ death eclipsed that of any other homicide case of the year.

Local and national figures picked through the case for evidence to support an avalanche of commentary on domestic violence, young men suddenly flush with wealth and even speculation as to whether Belcher had suffered from a traumatic brain injury.

But the most attention focused on remarks by NBC sportscaster and commentator Bob Costas, who echoed a column from former Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who argued that “Handguns do not enhance our safety.”

The nationally broadcast remarks rekindled a national gun safety debate that had grown quiet since the July mass shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. They also primed the discussion that raged two weeks later after the horrific killings at a Connecticut elementary school.

Gun violence is a substantial part of Kansas City’s homicide scene. Of the city’s 108 victims in 2012, 83 percent died from gunshot wounds, about the same as the 86 percent who died that way the previous year, according to police year-end statistics.

Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill is critical to bringing down the homicide rate in Kansas City, said Alvin Brooks, a member of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and leader of the AdHoc Group Against Crime.

Since the late 1990s, federal authorities have aggressively prosecuted felons who are caught illegally possessing firearms, a strategy applauded by advocates of both gun rights and gun control.

“We’ve been in the forefront to get the guns off the street and out of the hands of those who are irresponsible,” Brooks said. “I’m convinced that if you’re a killer and a shooter, you’ve got mental health issues.”

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The close of 2012 reminded Kansas City that it often fights far above its weight class in homicides.

Using 2010 census figures, Kansas City closed the year with 23 homicides per 100,000 residents, well above Chicago’s 19 per 100,000 residents and about on par with Philadelphia, at 22 per 100,000.

Denver and Indianapolis, two cities often used to compare with Kansas City on civic measures, each have per-capita homicide rates far below those found here, about six and 11 per 100,000 residents, respectively.

But the range on the extremes is quite wide.

On Friday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg predicted that his city would close the year as the “safest big city in the United States,” with the fewest number of homicides in its recorded history and a rate of just 3.5 per 100,000 residents.

Figures from earlier in 2012 suggest that two perennial leaders in homicide statistics, Michigan cities Detroit and Flint, again will each top 50 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Kansas City’s high per-capita crime numbers have persisted for more than a decade, even as some areas of property crimes have dropped. The city ranked seventh in the nation in overall per-capita crime in 1998 and fourth in 2000.

The city’s current hope to bring down violent crime, homicides in particular, is the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.

Working with all levels of law enforcement, including local, state and federal prosecutors, as well as probation and parole officers, police target the most violent offenders and groups while encouraging lower-level offenders to find alternatives to crime.

Forte said recently that the effort could “significantly reduce” Kansas City violent crime in 2013. Similar work in Cincinnati cut homicides there by 47 percent, he said.

Despite the status-quo finish to the homicide year, the chief has the support of the police board to make this new effort work, said Pat McInerney, a board member and former federal prosecutor.

“The initiatives are absolutely the right way to be going,” McInerney said. “To a member, we believe the department is headed in the right direction, and we continue to support it.”