There is no easy way to overcome a “staggering” problem of violence that has spanned decades.
That was the message leaders with the Kansas City No Violence Alliance delivered Monday to a contingent of St. Louis officials who were seeking ways to combat that city’s burgeoning homicide rate.
Many have attributed last year’s significant drop in Kansas City homicides to KC NoVa. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said after a day of meetings in Kansas City that she was eager to begin discussions about instituting a similar violence-reduction effort there.
“It’s a great strategy, a proven strategy,” Joyce said.
With 159 homicides last year, St. Louis recorded twice as many killings as Kansas City, even after Kansas City police recently added two more deaths from December to the total after the medical examiner ruled them homicides.
The 79 homicides represent a 21 percent decrease from 2013 and Kansas City’s lowest total since 1972.
On Monday, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who leads KC NoVa’s governing board, gave the visitors an overview of the effort and described some its goals.
Baker said that although progress has been made, Kansas City still had too many homicides last year. She said KC NoVa constantly studies what it is doing so it can be improved.
“This is a very, very long-term, stubborn problem,” Baker said of violent crime.
This year, the group intends to focus more attention on juveniles, she said.
“They’re killing people. They’re doing drive-by shootings,” she said. “We need a better focus on our juvenile groups.”
KC NoVa also wants to pay more attention to prison inmates being released into the community to deter them from criminal activity.
The St. Louis group also heard from Ken Novak and Andrew Fox, criminology professors from the University of Missouri-Kansas City who are “embedded” with the KC NoVa team.
Novak described the philosophy behind the “focused deterrence” strategy that KC NoVa uses. Research has shown that in any city, a tiny segment of the population is disproportionately responsible for violent crime, he said. That is where KC NoVa focuses its resources.
Fox also explained how social networks are analyzed to identify those people and their associates. When one member of the group commits a violent crime, then all group members are targeted for law enforcement attention, even if it is for minor infractions.
Research shows that the certainty and swiftness of punishment have more of a deterrent affect than the severity of the punishment, Novak said.
“That’s a real shift in thinking,” he said.
While promising swift retribution for violent acts, KC NoVa also offers social services to help group members leave the criminal life.
About 145 people previously identified as affiliated with criminal groups are receiving services through KC NoVa, said Maj. Joe McHale, the commander of the Kansas City Police Department’s violent crime enforcement division and project manager of KC NoVa.
Joyce, who speaks often with Baker, said that when she heard that Kansas City was instituting a focused deterrence crime-fighting model, she invited herself to hear more about it.
She was joined Monday by representatives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, federal prosecutors, Mayor Francis Slay’s office, probation and parole staff and clergy members.
The collaboration is essential for a program like KC NoVa to work, Baker said. Kansas City Mayor Sly James said it also requires the cooperation of the entire community and must be sustained over a long period.
“One year does not a trend make,” James said.