‘We’re not valuing life,’ people at KC homicide forum are told

Jennifer Jones was driving westbound on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard last week when she did something many drivers have done: She inadvertently cut off another driver.

But in this case, an occupant of the other vehicle escalated the temporary situation into a permanent tragedy. He opened fire into Jones’ van, hitting her in the side and killing her.

The killing was one of 15 in Kansas City last month — the most killings logged in January in nearly 20 years.

The alarming amount of bloodshed prompted state Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Democrat from Kansas City, to host a forum Saturday to discuss solutions to prevent homicides.

“Right now in the black community, we’re not valuing life,” he said. “There is a lack of respect for ourselves and our own lives.”

Hundreds of people, including dozens of local and state politicians, packed the Robert J. Mohart Multipurpose Center. They suggested tightening laws, providing students a better education and creating opportunities for felons who want to turn their lives around.

The range of social and economic topics was appropriate to address killings, said Mayor Sly James.

“The issue of violence is multifactorial,” he said. “There is no single cause.”

The broad discussion pleased Police Chief Darryl Forté.

“I think this is the first forum where people aren’t looking at police and asking what are we going to do about it,” he said, acknowledging the violence problem is “systemic.”

Kansas City has logged fewer than 100 homicides just nine times in the past 44 years, he told the crowd.

Lowynta Riley came to the forum to find out what she could do to help. She believes more programs are needed to help youths, especially those without homes.

“The kids are suffering,” she said. “My sister is an educator, and she said there are a lot of kids who stay after school every day because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

A woman Riley knows allows a teen to sleep on her front porch. She doesn’t trust him enough to bring him inside, but she wants him to have some protection.

“We’ve got to think about the kids,” she said. “They’re raising themselves.”

Kansas City Councilman John Sharp said state legislators should change the law that allows all adults, except for felons, to legally have a concealed gun in their vehicles without a permit.

He also said felons need opportunities after they are released from prison.

Bryant Cheadle spoke up and illustrated this point. He said a 2002 drug conviction prevented him from getting a job or receiving state benefits. Those biases and rules can push felons back into a life of crime, he said.

Cheadle persevered and landed a job with the Missouri Department of Transportation in 2011 repairing bridges. But now he’s worried about protecting his home and family from gun-toting thugs when he can’t legally own a gun.

“I’m in a Catch-22,” he said.

Laron Bryant pleaded for a stronger school system to better prepare students for honest lives. He attended Kansas City schools and earned straight A’s until he moved to Raytown.

He couldn’t keep up with the other students and quickly realized his Kansas City education had been “dumbed down.” He rose to the challenge at Raytown South High School and went on to college. But, 60 percent to 70 percent of the kids he grew up with are now dead, he said.

The majority of homicides in Kansas City involve black suspects killing black victims, Ellington said. But the problem has nothing to do with race and everything to do with social, economic and educational conditions, he said.