In Tuesday’s predawn darkness, the distant flash of lightning portended a nasty change in Kansas City’s weather.
At the same time, more than 100 police officers and federal agents gathered to unleash a different kind of storm on the city’s criminal subculture.
The Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVa for short, hit the streets hard to go after members of one of the many loosely affiliated criminal groups plaguing the city’s core.
Unlike past crime sweeps, authorities picked their targets by using a months-long computer analysis, unique for Kansas City, that identified social connections and past criminal associations between members of the group.
It was the first visible step in what city leaders promise to be a long-term and ongoing transformation in how the criminal justice system deals with violent criminals.
Leaders said the seven homicides in Kansas City since Monday, including two Wednesday about 90 minutes before they held a press conference to discuss KC NoVa, demonstrate the need to do something dramatically different.
“We’re doing something. We’re doing it together. And we’re doing it in a big way,” Mayor Sly James said.
KC NoVa identified 360 people in the group targeted for the two-day sweep, which took place primarily in the Northeast area. More than 200 arrest warrants existed for members of the group, and more than 60 members were on probation or parole.
Officers arrested 17 people, including suspects in two recent murders. Prosecutors charged 15 people with new crimes.
Three members of the targeted group have been slain in the few months since authorities first sketched out the group’s membership. Officials said that demonstrates the “high-risk” lifestyle associated with criminal behavior.
KC NoVa officials targeted this group for the first enforcement effort because it was “very small” and not as violent or robust as some others in the city.
Kansas City police began shifting toward a more focused crime-prevention approach about a year ago when Police Chief Darryl Forté began a “hot spot” initiative to target crime-ridden areas.
KC NoVa will extend that idea to a “hot people” approach, based on the fact that a relatively small number of individuals commit the majority of violent crime.
Such enforcement is part of a two-tier strategy. The second step will offer people on the group’s periphery a path out of the criminal life through education, drug treatment, job training and other social services.
Authorities have been meeting regularly for more than a year to plan the effort.
The police department, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, the mayor’s office, the U.S. attorney and Missouri probation and parole offices are collaborating with the goal of reducing homicides and gun assaults. The University of Missouri-Kansas City also is playing a key role.
“I have been here 15 years and we have never had everybody at the same table,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in a recent interview.
Teams of officers fanned out Tuesday morning armed with dozens of files detailing charges ranging from misdemeanor city violations to drug trafficking to homicide.
As people slept inside one house in the 1200 block of Agnes Avenue, a blue panel van roared around the corner and disgorged a squad of heavily armed tactical officers before it even squealed to a stop.
Some officers swept around the house to cover all exits as others pried open the front storm door before knocking loudly.
One officer shouted “police search warrant” several times, before a heavy, metal battering ram crashed into the door until it gave way.
They arrested the man they were looking for on drug trafficking charges. They detained two other occupants briefly while searching the house. Officers recovered a small amount of illegal drugs.
At Wednesday’s press conference, James promised that kind of attention will be repeated for those who continue to commit crimes rather than take advantage of the help that KC NoVa pledged to offer.
“We’re giving you a chance to redeem yourself,” James said. “If you don’t, we’re going to put your butt in jail.”
To achieve success, KC NoVa leaders must remain committed, crime prevention experts say.
At Wednesday’s news conference, leaders affirmed that they will.
“This is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Forté said.
And experts say it will require a new way of thinking across the community, including with the people most at risk for committing violent crimes and being victims of them.
That’s the lesson other cities like Boston, Cincinnati and Indianapolis have learned, said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Reduction Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Kennedy studied the dynamics of violent street crime for years before helping create a program that became known as the “Boston miracle.”
Boston recorded 96 homicides in 1995, the year before the program started. Two years later, the city recorded 34.
Killings have inched upward in recent years as city leaders got away from efforts that led to the initial success. Yet last year, Boston, with a larger population than Kansas City, experienced 50 homicides while Kansas City notched 108.
Other cities adopted Boston’s model. Academic studies have shown “statistically significant” violent crime reductions in most of them.
“I’m pretty confident in saying that studies have found one can expect at least a one-third reduction in street violence,” Kennedy said.
Kansas City leaders said the goal for KC NoVa is to reduce Kansas City’s homicide count to 80 within two years.
“The bottom line,” said Baker, “is less people at the end of the year have been shot and killed by gunfire.”
Kansas City Police Capt. Joe McHale is the project manager. A Kansas City police sergeant and a squad of detectives have been assigned full time. They work out of the prosecutor’s office with other team members.
The son of a Kansas City police officer, McHale said the areas beset by crime in his father’s day were the same as when he started with the department, and the same that officers deal with today.
“People in those communities are clamoring for a change,” he said.
Identifying individual criminals and their connections within a group allows the justice system to focus its limited resources on them, McHale said.
Andrew Fox, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at UMKC, has been KC NoVa’s point man in building the database of people targeted in this week’s sweep. While previously living in Arizona, Fox constructed similar models as part of his academic focus on gangs and social network analysis.
Using police reports and officers’ field notes as the raw material, Fox has built computer models that show connections between individuals and also identify key people within the group. It is essentially a “connect the dots” exercise first developed as a way to track the spread of communicable diseases, he said.
By strategically removing key individuals, law enforcement can achieve the “biggest bang” in disrupting the cohesiveness of the group, he said.
This week’s police action is meant to send a message to the city’s other criminal groups: If one member of a group commits a violent crime, the entire group will be targeted for extreme enforcement and prosecution.
The social service aspect will be introduced this spring, when key members of the target groups will be called in for meetings.
KC NoVa also plans to enlist the city’s faith-based community to spread the KC NoVa message. MORE2, a local interfaith social justice organization, will coordinate that aspect of the strategy.
Violent crime in the inner city affects the economic vitality of the entire metropolitan area, McHale said. It hurts property values and dims tax revenues and new business investment, he said.
People directly affected by violent crime have the most to gain from this effort, Baker said.
“They have had their loved ones taken away from them, either to a jail cell or in a pine box,” she said. “We’ve followed the same arrest and prosecution model for 40 years and we’re no closer to solving the problem than we were 20 years ago or 10 years ago. We’ve got to do something more.”