Reports on violent crime in Kansas City often take on the sound of a familiar drumbeat: Homicides are rising, shootings are up.
But those alarming reports don’t always show the big picture. Over the past two decades, homicide rates have actually declined in Kansas City, as they have across the U.S.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? Kansas City’s stubbornly high homicide rate is decreasing at a slower rate and is still worse than most of the country — including Chicago, which is notorious for its violence.
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The most recent spikes in violence have been troubling: Kansas City’s 130 homicides in 2016 were the city’s highest since 2008.
And so far this year, the city has counted 134 homicides — putting it on pace to top the year before.
In general, Kansas City has grown safer over the past 20 years. But that safety is not distributed equally — some demographics are more likely to be victims of homicide than others. At most risk are young black men, said Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“It’s safer to be deployed as a soldier in Iraq than to be a young black man in Kansas City,” he said.
Kansas City father Haji Williams isn’t surprised.
Williams’ 18-year-old son Asaan was shot and killed two years ago in Seven Oaks Park at 37th Street and Kensington Avenue. He was months away from graduating high school.
“I always felt he was going to be at risk just being in the inner city, because it’s easy to get caught up with the wrong crowd,” Williams said.
Even though Williams raised Asaan in a close-knit neighborhood with positive role models, he saw the forces aligned against young men like him in the inner city: poverty, violence, guns and segregation.
Like a growing number of Kansas City homicides, Asaan’s killing remains unsolved.
Historical data tell the story: In 1993, the homicide rate in Kansas City was 35.2 homicides per 100,000 residents.
In 2015, the figure was 23.5. That overall downward trend — broken by short-term ups and downs — mirrors a national decrease in violent crime.
Kansas City’s homicide rate is higher than the national rate, which is five per 100,000, according to data from the Kansas City Police Department, census data and FBI crime statistics.
Larger cities tend to have homicide rates higher than the national average. Part of the reason is just a larger concentration of people, Novak said. But urban areas also tend to have a lot of the characteristics of root causes of crime: economic deprivation, racial ethnic segregation, economic diversity, religious diversity.
“These types of root causes creates an environment for, first of all, more opportunity to commit crime, and you’re more likely to have conflict in a more heterogeneous society. That’s urban life.”
Each year’s new homicide numbers invite a comparison to the year before, and frequently drive headlines.
But year-to-year comparisons of raw numbers have limited usefulness, Novak said.
“When we see a spike in homicides in some cities in 2015, 2016, we may interpret that as being a new crime wave, where I think that it may be a bit dangerous to do that,” he said.
More years of data and rates tell experts and law enforcement about trends.
To put the numbers into perspective, The Star analyzed Kansas City’s homicide rate going back to the 1960s.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, homicide trends in Kansas City mirrored the rest of the country. Nationwide, particularly in the 1980s, drugs fueled higher homicide rates nationally.
While homicide rates nationwide and in Kansas City have both gone down since the 1990s, Kansas City lags behind. Instead of being three times the national rate, it’s closer to 4 1/2 times.
“Things are bad. But they’ve been worse in Kansas City and especially nationally,” Novak said. “The homicide rate nationally is half of what it used to be 20 years ago. We forget those types of things. But it’s not much solace for those who are victimized.”
Comparing the number of homicides from city to city can be difficult since populations and boundaries vary so greatly. Criminologists analyze the number of homicides per 100,000 people to make it more apples to apples.
For example, Kansas City has a higher homicide rate per 100,000 than Chicago.
When you look at FBI data for average homicide rates from 2010-2014 among large U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people, Kansas City is seventh behind New Orleans; Detroit; St. Louis; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; and Oakland, Calif. Chicago is 18th.
So why is Kansas City worse?
“I don’t have a good answer for that, and I wish I did,” Novak said.
He says he has struggled with that because there are evidence-based initiatives in Kansas City — and they should be working.
“I wonder to what extent that there is a culture of violence that is normal in Kansas City. And that’s not just of people who are engaged in violence or touched by violence, but just in general. Maybe everyone has a bit of that burden because that’s just the way Kansas City is. So even those of us less likely to be affected by violence are less likely to be involved or be as outraged as we should be.”
Kansas City Police Department officials declined interview requests, either by phone or in person, but sent an email in response to a request for an interview about the local homicide rates and the recent increases.
“To address the increased homicide rates we have recently utilized data to redeploy resources to areas where we are experiencing higher incidents of violent crime in Kansas City,” wrote police spokeswoman Stacey Graves.
“...In addition, officers are encouraged to build relationships and trust in our community. We need those relationships to help keep our city safe. Working together and building relationships helps solve crimes, to include homicides.”
Rosilyn Temple, executive director of the anti-violence group KC Mothers in Charge, said efforts to stop the killing have run up against a culture where violence is accepted and witnesses are reluctant to come forward.
Temple’s son, Antonio Thompson, was killed at age 26 — slain in his apartment the day before Thanksgiving 2011.
“Young people grow up now with this ‘no-snitch’ mentality,” Temple said. “It’s become like a normal thing. But it’s not normal. It’s very important that when someone is killed, you speak up. The community needs to step up.
“People carry out a homicide, and then they end up becoming homicide victims. And that’s not a win-win case for anyone.”
To deter crime, our criminal justice system needs to have three things, Novak said: certainty, swiftness and severity.
“But it’s certainty that matters the most. If people do not reasonably feel they’re going to be held accountable for an action, it doesn’t matter how severe the punishment really is.”
Certainty is reflected in clearance — the rate that crimes are considered solved or “cleared” — usually by an arrest, but also when an offender is identified but can’t be arrested. Crimes can be cleared the year they were committed or in subsequent years.
Kansas City has a lower clearance rate than the national average — and it’s going down. That’s not uncommon for major cities.
The homicide clearance rate in 2016 was 49.2 percent, according to Kansas City police data.
In other words, a person who killed someone in Kansas City last year had roughly a 50-50 chance of being arrested for it.
“A rational person wouldn’t be deterred too much in the criminal justice system in that regard,” Novak said.
Kansas City’s clearance rate decreased in the last few years as the number of homicides increased. Generally, when the same number of detectives have more homicides to investigate, the clearance rates can fall, Novak said.
“As clearance rates go down, and the public realizes or feels that police and prosecutors aren’t able to solve a crime ... their motivation to participate as a witness, informant or whatnot goes down as well, which makes it more difficult to clear the crime. And then we end up with a spiral.”
Nationwide, the homicide clearance rate in 2015 — the most recent full year available — was one of the lowest on record: 61.5 percent.
Overall, we are less likely to solve a murder now than we were 20 years ago, said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, which tracks homicides throughout the country and how effective law enforcement has been at solving them.
Hargrove believes the primary driver of the declining clearance rate nationally is a failure of political will to provide necessary resources to solve major crimes.
“There are some cities for whom gangs and drugs are more deeply entrenched than others,” Hargrove said. “But no matter where you are, if you get killers off the street, if you arrest them, the murder rate is going to stay under control. If you leave killers on the street, the killing will go on.
“You have hundreds of uncaught killers in Kansas City. ... Until you catch the killers, the killing will go on.”
Novak has compared the death rate of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011 with Kansas City homicide statistics.
The death rate for troops was about 317 per 100,000 deployed.
For black men ages 25-34 in Kansas City, it was about 380 per 100,000.
Nationwide, African-Americans make up the largest number of homicide victims, according to the Murder Accountability Project’s data.
That’s true in Kansas City as well, where more than 75 percent of all homicide victims were African-American in 2015.
Nearly 30 percent of those cases had no suspect at the time of the report; about 15 percent of homicides of whites in Kansas City had no suspect. Without an immediately identified suspect, cases may be harder to solve, especially if no witnesses come forward.
There are many legitimate reasons why witnesses are reluctant to get involved with police investigations after a homicide.
A lack of faith that the system works. Distrust of law enforcement. Fear of retaliation.
But it’s important that people do it anyway.
Haji Williams, like many who have lost loved ones to homicide in Kansas City, is still waiting for witnesses to say who killed his son.
He’s counting on the community to come together to put a stop to the violence.
“All of us have to stick together.”