Young men and women who filed into a Kansas City auditorium Wednesday heard a stark message: You are on the fast track to prison or an early grave.
There are seldom any other outcomes for those who hustle in the streets with anger and hopelessness in their hearts and a gun in their waistbands.
But on Wednesday, a cross-section of Kansas City leaders held unprecedented meetings with this hand-picked group of at-risk individuals to offer them a chance to help themselves, their families and their communities.
“Seize this opportunity,” Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté told them. “We’re asking you to help us stop the violence.”
Wednesday’s meetings or “call-ins” were the first of what is one of the signature efforts of the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, known as KC NoVa, that is designed to reduce shootings and killings in the city.
The idea, pioneered successfully in cities like Cincinnati and Boston, is to identify the individuals and groups most likely to commit violent crimes and target them for swift and severe prosecution if they go down that path.
“You are on the radar screen of law enforcement and prosecutors,” said Marino Vidoli, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Kansas City. “You and I both know that’s not a good thing.”
But that promise of enhanced law enforcement attention also came with an offer of social services — such as substance abuse treatment, job training and counseling — to help them escape the criminal lifestyle.
“You can become a statistic, or you can turn your life around today,” Tammy Dickinson, U.S. attorney in western Missouri, told them.
A broad coalition of Kansas City leaders from city hall, the Police Department, federal law enforcement agencies, state and federal prosecutors, parole and probation officers, religious leaders and community activists have joined to deliver the no violence message.
On Wednesday, rather than take the message to the streets, they brought the streets to the message.
About 38 people, mostly men, attended three call-in sessions at the Mohart Multipurpose Center at 3200 Wayne Avenue in the city’s core.
Organizers had invited 120 individuals, all associated in some way with suspects in aggravated assaults and homicides. Those connections were gleaned from police reports and other intelligence gathered and compiled by KC NoVa staff.
A dozen speakers, including the mothers of murder victims, gave short presentations.
They hammered home the message that there is a new commitment in Kansas City to stop violent crime.
“We will not tolerate violence the way we have in the past,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “Don’t be foolish and question my resolve.”
Dickinson said that any cases that can go to federal court and its harsher penalties will be taken by her office. She assured those in the audience that federal prison is much different from the county jail.
Darren Brown attested to that fact. He spent 16 years in federal prison alone and far from home, and he appealed to the audience to consider their families, particularly their children.
“Don’t leave your kids out there where somebody can hurt them,” he said.
Michael Brooks, a church pastor and Kansas City Council member, described how he and Brown were childhood friends who choose different paths. Brooks said he would have likely ended up dead or in prison if he had not left the streets by joining the military.
“God was watching out for me when I didn’t have the sense to watch out for myself,” Brooks said.
Cheryl Lumpkins and Rosilyn Temple, the mothers of sons murdered in Kansas City, took the podium together at the first session and made impassioned pleas to spare others from the pain they’ve endured.
Like many Kansas City families caught in the cycle of violence, Lumpkins has lost sons to homicide and the penitentiary. Her 17-year-old son, Rickey King, was a good, college-bound kid who aspired to be a police officer before he was shot to death in 2011. Another son is doing time in a federal prison in Indiana.
“He was hard-headed and didn’t want to put the gun down,” she said.
Temple encouraged her listeners to “be a part of the community” and take a stand against violence.
Sonya Cherry, the mother of a young man killed in 2011, asked attendees to consider the ripple effect of acts of violence.
“You need to know that it affects not only you,” Cherry said. “It affects the whole human family.”
Most in the audience appeared attentive, although in the first meeting Wednesday morning, one young man who appeared to be dozing was called out by community outreach specialist Pat Clarke, who said he was sick of living in a “blood-ridden” city.
“I’m tired of going to funerals,” Clarke said. “Ain’t nobody killing us but us.”
Those who showed up were given information about how to contact KC NoVa to obtain social service help. They also were invited to stay after the sessions and meet with providers. About half of the attendees took advantage of that opportunity.
Kansas City Police Capt. Joe McHale, project manager for KC NoVa, said organizers were pleased with the attendance. Except for some on probation or parole who were directed to show up by their supervising officers, attendance was voluntary, he said.
“You’re dealing with people who live that kind of lifestyle and don’t have to show up,” he said. “We’re very happy with it.”
McHale ended each session by encouraging participants to spread the message they heard Wednesday to their friends, family and associates.
“If violence occurs, we know who you are. We know who your associates are,” McHale told them. “The violence has to stop.”