Kansas City Santa Fe neighborhood dealing with crime seeks help from city
Until the gunfire, it was a simple neighborhood clean up.
Armed with brooms, trash bags and other cleaning supplies, members of the Santa Fe Area Council were marching to the forlorn, trash-filled corner of 27th Street and Benton Boulevard.
As they reached the intersection, an arm emerged from a car window. Marquita Taylor, president of the neighborhood association, dialed 911 as she and the others dove for cover. The shooter missed but drove by a second time, wounding a woman in the leg.
Police made no arrests in the January 2018 shooting, which may have been aimed at another group in the neighborhood, which runs from 27th Street to Linwood Boulevard and Indiana Avenue to Prospect Avenue.
Taylor’s message to the 11 candidates for mayor in the April 2 primary: “I don’t know if people really realize or understand the impact of what it is like to live in an area like this,” Taylor said. “It’s trauma.”
The contenders have plenty to say about crime. Very little of it, in Taylor’s estimation, speaks to the psychological toll of living in an environment where violence is always a possibility—even when you’re just trying to clean up your neighborhood.
“I haven’t heard anything that I can say that I can hold them accountable for yet,” she said. “I am really hoping that through all of the mayoral speeches that we can nail it down to what you are really going to do. I haven’t heard anything specific.”
Candidates say they understand the frustration. “It is not enough for us to talk about pie-in-the-sky strategies or use buzzwords, talking points,” said Councilman Quinton Lucas, 3rd District at-large.
Over the years, Kansas City has launched a string of initiatives attempting to defuse the culture of violence that plagues many neighborhoods. The KC No Violence Alliance identifies those likely to commit violent crimes and offers social services as an alternative to likely future incarceration. Community response teams from the Jackson County prosecutors office work closely with neighborhood groups in selected areas that are hot spots for crime and violence.
But the homicide rate per capita remains one of the highest in the nation for a big city (5th in 2017). And while while murder attracts headlines and attention from elected officials, it is often lower level crimes like burglary, street larceny and auto theft that corrode the quality of life for thousands of residents.
Many of those offenses are committed with impunity. Kansas City police have solved them at a rate much lower than the national average.
In 2017, Kansas City police cleared—meaning there was an arrest and a charge—just 195 burglaries, or roughly 4.2 percent of the 4,647 burglaries reported that year. The national clearance rate that year was 10 percent, according to the Police Department’s annual report and federal data.
The city counted 4,414 auto thefts in 2017. Police cleared 95 of them, or 2.2 percent. Nationally, police agencies cleared 9.2 percent of reported vehicle thefts.
And those figures are for the crimes that are reported.
Many offenses often go unreported because victims feel there is little police can do to arrest the perpetrator, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City,
Unreported crimes erode community trust in law enforcement and create “vicarious trauma, the emotional and psychological toll that comes from being in a community that experiences a lot of crime. Or having friends who been victims of crime,” Novak said.
Taylor said she and her neighbors live it each day.
“There are times there are so many people in front of the store and you want to get some food, you have to look at your surroundings before you even think about getting out of the car,” she said. “It is wise to do that or go someplace else.”
In 2019 one recurring promise from mayoral candidates is to tackle crime as a public health crisis, much in the same way as tobacco or drug use, with treatment and heightened public awareness as well as enforcement.
Councilwoman Jolie Justus, 4th District, chaired the Citizens Task Force on Violence, appointed by Mayor Sly James, which made a series of recommendations. A few have been implemented, including a comprehensive youth master plan in collaboration with the city health department.
She proposes to increase funding for police social workers and to scale up the Legal Aid of Western Missouri Adopt-A-Neighborhood program, which makes representation available to east side residents or neighborhood groups for issues ranging from real estate to landlord-tenant matters to taxes.
“Everybody needs to have the same quality of life regardless of what neighborhood or ZIP code or where they live,” said Justus.
Lucas, a member of the City Council’s public safety committee, said he wants to reorganize the police department’s administrative arm to put more officers on patrol. He said he will also push to reduce or eliminate incarceration for certain non-violent city ordinance violations, to stop the cycle of school-to-prison for those who aren’t career offenders or who suffer from health issues.
Another plan would redirect some of the city’s $50 million-a-year Health Levy (a segment of the property tax that supports Truman Medical Center and other safety net programs) to mental health treatment for crime victims and survivors.
“We need to let neighborhoods know that we care now and that is what people need to see from the next mayor but also from the next council,” Lucas said.
Another mayoral candidate, Councilwoman Alissia Canady, 5th District, has encountered neighborhood violence first-hand. In April 2017 she witnessed as shoot out in a parking lot at 57th Street and Swope Parkway.
She was also involved in an ongoing dispute with a neighbor that threatened to turn violent. Over a shared driveway.
Instead of parking on the street, Canady said the neighbor repeatedly allowed an overnight guest to block her car. Canady feared for her safety when the neighbor brandished weapons. To avoid the drama, Canady parked on the street.
She later sold her home.
As mayor, Canady said she would push for more resources to settle the kind of neighborhood dispute in which she found herself entangled.
“I wasn’t dealing with reasonable people so I had to go out of my way to keep peace under the circumstances and most people are not willing to do that because you shouldn’t have to,” Canady said. “They made it personal and the fact the police weren’t able to get them to chill out empowered them. It was apparent.”
‘We need serious help’
Santa Fe is a neighborhood with a rich history. Walt Disney and Satchel Paige once lived there. The family of barbecue baron Ollie Gates and longtime minister and community activist the Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield are current residents.
Streets are lined with spacious 1900-era homes and sturdy bungalows. A massive, five-bedroom house, located at 26th Street and Lockridge Avenue just west of Benton Boulevard, recently sold for more than $200,000.
It’s also hopeful about the future. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority is spending $30 million on a nine-mile Prospect Avenue rapid bus line that community leaders hope will spur the kind of new economic activity visible on stretches of Troost Avenue.
But the churches that dot almost every street corner are nearly outnumbered by liquor stores. Vacant lots and boarded, dilapidated houses share the same blocks with well-kept homes.
Sex workers routinely stroll 28th Street between Benton Boulevard and Prospect Avenue. Some are so brazen they loiter in front of a house just two blocks from the Police Department’s East Patrol Division.
Residents said they’ve tried everything, including mounting cameras and using their cellphones to snap pictures of motorists who come to pick them up.
Joe Jackson, who once owned the property, said he posted no trespassing signs and asked police for help but the loitering continued. He even poured molasses and maple syrup on the wall in front of the house as a deterrent.
“I’m sure that it is frustrating for them,” said Sgt. Brad Dumit, a police vice unit supervisor. “We are arresting the same girls over and over again.”
Recently, police sweeps on Prospect and Independence avenues netted 13 arrests.
“Honestly, it is hard to keep them in jail anywhere. The jail has limited space and there are criminals that they are going to keep and they (prostitutes) may be one of the first ones let out,” Dumit said.
Neighborhood leaders say they have a working relationship with the community interaction officer at the East Patrol Division. Police commanders, including Chief Rick Smith, have been accessible and attend neighborhood meetings.
But Councilman Jermaine Reed, 3rd District, who represents Santa Fe, said there is no substitute for bona fide community policing, where officers become familiar, and perhaps trusted, figures.
“Right now officers are regularly shifted from community to community, as opposed to being allowed to continuously operate in the same community,” Reed said. “The only way to build stronger bonds between officers and residents is for officers to continuously work, and ideally live, in the communities they provide law enforcement services to. “
Reed also said that retention and recruitment of minority police officers should be a priority. “Kansas City is a very diverse city and so our police force should reflect our diversity,” he said.
It’s not as if Santa Fe expects police to be solely responsible for turning the tide of violence.
“We have done everything that we can think of to try to change the dynamics of the area and we are still fighting,” Taylor said. “We are trying to do the best we can, hoping that someone can help us. We are in a place where we need some serious help.”