Trail of trauma as city sprints to 100th homicide, on pace for record

A woman was fatally shot in a home Friday in the 5700 block of Cambridge Avenue in Kansas City. Investigators worked the scene.
A woman was fatally shot in a home Friday in the 5700 block of Cambridge Avenue in Kansas City. Investigators worked the scene.

A woman was found dead in a parked car in Westport, and another woman was shot and killed in southeast Kansas City on Friday.

It was the latest spate of violence in a city hurtling toward a grim milestone far quicker than it has in years past. If the two incidents recorded Friday both prove to be homicides, they will be No. 99 and No. 100 for 2017.

After finishing last year with 130 homicides, this year Kansas City is almost right on pace to match its record of 153 homicides set in 1993.

“What is the role for the larger society to take on this issue?” Andres Dominguez, a program director for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, said Friday. “Because it has a bearing upon us as a community, beyond where that action took place.”

Last year, the Kansas City Police Department didn’t investigate its 100th homicide until Oct. 27. Every year from 2009 through 2015, the 100th homicide didn’t come until November or December. In 2014, it never came at all. The city finished the year with 82.

Kansas City has recognized the threat such violence poses to the population’s physical and emotional health longer than most cities. But as the killing increases, health experts say it’s time for a more comprehensive, long-term approach to stemming the tide.

In 2008, Kansas City was the third city to partner with a Chicago-based nonprofit called Cure Violence. Founded by doctor and epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, the program treats violence as a contagious disease and uses outbreak prevention techniques to try to stop it. The group enlists local “interrupters” to counsel those who are exposed to violence and try to keep them from retaliating.

Kansas City’s Cure Violence program is called Aim4Peace. Since 2008, it has been funded through a patchwork of city dollars, health foundation grants and a three-year U.S. Department of Justice outlay. Its reach has been limited to just a few neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

Dominguez said the health foundation believes it’s gotten a good return on its investment, but Aim4Peace can only do so much in its current form.

“Oftentimes what we’re seeing in this city is that homicides aren’t restricted to specific ZIP codes,” Dominguez said.

There’s been skepticism of Aim4Peace’s effectiveness in Kansas City almost since it started in Kansas City, and Charlie Ransford, a spokesman for Cure Violence, said there’s been no sophisticated statistical analysis to prove it works.

But Ransford said the areas Aim4Peace is in have fared better than the city as a whole, and it deserves a chance to expand.

“Aim4Peace really needs to be given a legitimate opportunity to work in Kansas City,” Ransford said.

Shawn McDaniel, a clinical psychologist with the Kansas City Psychology Center in Blue Springs, said that if the city really wants to stop the cycle of violence, it has to start much younger.

“I’ve evaluated lots of kids whose parents have told them they can’t even go play outside because it’s not safe enough,” McDaniel said. “If they ever want to change the long-term outcomes of violence in the city, they’re going to have to make the neighborhoods safer so kids can have a normal childhood.”

Children exposed to violence face not only the prospect of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, but also generalized anxiety disorders and other emotional health issues.

That makes them more likely to exhibit oppositional, anti-social behaviors — behaviors that can manifest as criminal activity as they get older.

It’s easier to right the emotional ship before kids grow up, McDaniel said, but they have to have access to evidence-based treatment.

McDaniel said the city should invest more in those treatment services and substance abuse treatments. He said it should also provide more resources to help parents learn how to respond productively to oppositional behaviors, and reduce domestic abuse that begets violence outside the home.

“If you could lower domestic violence, that would lower a lot of homicide,” McDaniel said.

That’s something the city is working on, said Tracie McClendon-Cole, the deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department.

The Health Department is starting a collaboration with the Oakland, Calif.-based Prevention Institute on a “Youth and Family Violence Prevention Plan.”

The institute’s program director, Lisa Fujie, is scheduled to visit the Health Department for three days starting Sept. 5 to get the project off the ground.

McClendon-Cole said it’s a necessary next step in trying to engineer a long-term reversal of the city’s increasing murder rate.

“These things work,” McClendon-Cole said. “It’s just a matter of having the will and desire to recognize these issues we face didn’t come up over night. So while we’re looking at quick solutions, they also need to be sustainable ones that truly change culture, truly change norms and truly change opportunity.”

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso