Gun violence on the rise
Kimbrlyn was getting ready for bed, plugging her cellphone into its charger, when she heard a sound — a loud pop — that was sadly familiar.
And then she felt it: a stinging sensation in her backside.
“I knew what it was because I’m used to hearing that in my neighborhood,” said the 45-year-old Kansas City resident, who requested that her last name not be used out of fear of retribution.
She was right. A bullet had ripped through the ceiling from the apartment above her in the 4200 block of Roanoke Road near Westport.
With that, Kimbrlyn became one of the 146 victims who have survived shootings in Kansas City through April of this year, part of an alarming increase in bloodshed in recent years.
While Kansas City’s rising number of homicides has grabbed the attention of politicians and the public alike, more and more people are being wounded by gunshots that don’t kill but unleash devastating harm to the victims and neighborhoods they terrorize.
From 2014 to 2016, the city saw a whopping 64 percent spike in nonfatal shootings, an increase from 290 in 2014 to 477 last year.
And this year, the city is on pace to shatter those numbers. The number of shooting victims through April is 14 percent greater than last year and 128 percent more than in 2014.
A Kansas City Star database review of every gunshot that hit a person last year revealed that gun violence affects most every part of Kansas City — north, south, east and west. Few neighborhoods were free from the scourge of bullets.
But the violence is particularly concentrated in certain neighborhoods. A central swath from Independence Avenue south to about Longview Road and between Troost Avenue on the west and Topping Avenue on the east saw most of the shootings.
Gunshots rang out between 2 and 3 a.m. more than any other time of day, the data revealed. And Saturday saw the most shootings of any day of the week.
Two consecutive days in June saw 14 shootings, the most in 48 hours.
Jeffrey Simpson, a trauma surgeon at Research Medical Center, sees the city’s violence first hand.
The scene he witnessed on New Year’s Eve was particularly unforgettable.
A man was rushed into Research Medical Center about 7:30 p.m. with a horrific gunshot wound to the head. The man was sitting in the back seat of a vehicle headed west on Meyer Boulevard.
“They pull up and spill out of the car. One guy is likely dead in the back seat, and the other guy is trying to hold the blood in,” Simpson said. “The entrance of the emergency room becomes a crime scene.”
The driver who delivered the victim fled before cops arrived.
“And it is not uncommon,” Simpson said. “We see that regularly.”
The New Year’s Eve carnage was so bad — eight people were shot that night in the city, the most of any single day last year — that Simpson was unable to leave the hospital when his shift ended for fear of getting hit by gunfire, he said.
Most gunshot wounds that Simpson and other trauma surgeons handle come from small-caliber handguns. Victims are frequently shot in the abdomen, chest or the lower body.
Often fueled by alcohol, warm summer weekends are when gun violence is the most prolific, Simpson said.
The Star’s 2016 data bear that out: August was the month with the most shootings, Saturday and Sunday the days of the week.
Police, community leaders and academic experts think they know why the shootings are happening. With more relaxed gun laws and easier access to firearms, minor disputes once settled with words or fisticuffs now end with gunfire and bloodshed, they say.
But they are confounded by what can be done to stop the shooting.
“I don’t know what new I can say about it, to be honest with you,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James said. “I’ve said the same thing over and over and over: When people have guns and poor problem-solving skills, they are going to use them.
“And I don’t know how to stop it. I wish I did, and I would get there and do it. But nobody else has seemed to figure out the magic formula, either.”
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said the violence feeds on itself, making it harder to stop.
“As the incidence rate goes up, it is harder for us to tackle the problem,” Baker said.
She thinks the increase in gun violence is part of a continuing cycle that has gripped Kansas City since the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s.
“I think it is hard for us to understand why we are in this time and how we got here and how long it is going to last,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball ... but I do think we are going to come out on the other side of this.
“I don’t think this is the new Kansas City as we know it.”
Searching for answers
Each morning for the past six months, Kansas City police from the gang, career criminal and violent crime units have gathered to review overnight shootings, robberies and other violent crimes to detect patterns or common assailants.
Often the pattern they detect revolves around a street culture of groups who battle each other over drugs and drug territories. More than half of the city’s nonfatal shootings stem from turf wars or disputes between street gangs, police say.
It’s a street culture that condones gun violence to solve even the smallest disputes.
“Sometimes it is over the silliest things, such as over girlfriends or general disrespect, which is the most ridiculous way to solve your problems, with gun violence,” said Capt. Chris Young with the department’s violent crimes enforcement unit.
Using firearms to settle disputes creates an unfortunate spiral of violence that police alone cannot stem, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
People who see firearm use increasing in their neighborhoods are more likely to arm themselves to feel safe. As the number of firearms on the streets increases, so too does the opportunity to use them, Novak said.
Focusing resources and efforts on those more prone to use firearms to settle disputes may be an effective and efficient strategy, Novak said.
In January 2013, the KC No Violence Alliance, commonly called NoVa, was launched as an effort among prosecutors, police, federal law enforcement agencies and community leaders to reduce homicides and other violent crimes.
UMKC professors work with KC NoVa to identify violent criminal groups and track their connections. Law enforcement then focuses on those groups.
Initially, the effort saw success. Kansas City recorded 82 homicides in 2014, the lowest number in more than 40 years.
However, the number of homicides and nonfatal shootings has climbed each year since.
“I know people lauded NoVa in 2014 when the numbers were down, and right now people want to poo-poo the whole effort,” Baker said. “But I would hate to see what the world would look like if NoVa went away.”
Loosened gun laws haven’t helped police, Baker said.
In previous years, police would stop, for example, a suspicious armed person and confiscate the weapon. Because changes in Missouri law allow gun owners to carry their weapons without a permit, now they give back the weapon and let the person go.
Another problem is what police see as apathy from residents in neighborhoods where shootings are more frequent.
In many cases, residents don’t even report gunfire to the police, the department has learned through its use since 2012 of ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection system.
Using electronic sensors posted throughout a 3.55-square-mile area, ShotSpotter alerts police when outdoor gunfire erupts. Patrol officers can quickly locate shooting victims and, in theory, catch shooting suspects.
Police found that only about 30 percent of the gunfire incidents in the ShotSpotter coverage area — neighborhoods disproportionately victimized by shootings — were reported to police.
“Apathy is thinking that someone else is handling it, or is thinking that it just won’t matter anyway,” said Sgt. Jake Becchina, a supervisor in the Police Department’s Real-time Crime Center who oversees the ShotSpotter system. “That is the unfortunate perception.”
Police and prosecutors also grapple with witnesses who are unwilling to cooperate and victims who prefer to remain silent.
One tool helping investigators is a network that matches firearms to the criminals. Kansas City is linked into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.
Each handgun leaves behind traceable fingerprints when it is fired. That information is collected at crime scenes and is entered into the NIBIN System.
Investigators use the evidence and NIBIN data to link shootings from a particular weapon to a specific criminal group.
“In those cases, we won’t need a cooperating witness to begin prosecuting the individuals responsible for all of that mess,” Young said.
Because of the high number of nonfatal shooting cases, Kansas City detectives have not kept pace in matching shell casings from one crime scene to another crime scene, Young said.
The department is looking to hire additional workers to help eliminate the backlog.
Baker’s office is also beefing up prosecutions of shooters. Last year, she assigned a team of her assistant prosecutors to take a second look at nonfatal shootings to determine whether criminal charges could be filed.
In 2014, prosecutors filed 181 assault cases against shooters; last year, they prosecuted 223 shooting cases.
But the office’s increase in prosecutions is not keeping pace with the increase in shootings. The vast majority of shooting cases go unsolved.
Trauma that lasts
The bullet hole in the ceiling above Kimbrlyn’s bed — about the size of a silver dollar — served as a daily reminder of being shot.
“I couldn’t go to sleep because it was the last thing and the first thing I saw every day,” she said.
Most shooting victims like Kimbrlyn experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Victims have trouble sleeping at night and have repeated flashbacks.
Sometimes, shooting victims fall into depression or become quick to anger, said Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who served on the Missouri African-American Statewide Mental Health Task Force.
Victims sometimes blunt their emotions to block the pain. They become hypervigilant or seldom leave their homes.
It is important that shooting victims seek professional counseling, Wilson said.
Four years ago, Police Chief Darryl Forté started a new unit to assist violent crime victims and their families.
Police officers reach out to shooting victims to see how they can help. They find resources for the victims to help with problems as simple as repairing bullet holes or replacing stolen items, or as complicated as helping with victim financial compensation paperwork.
Kimbrlyn said she didn’t take advantage of the Police Department’s helping hand. Instead, she took refuge in her religious faith.
Kimbrlyn has since left her Westport-area apartment and moved to a city in the area where she feels safer.
“I have a lot of peace now,” she said. “I don’t have the fear that I once did, and I am not in danger anymore.”