KC NoVa crimefighting program had ‘no effects’ feds say
On a cold day in December 2014, teams of heavily armed police officers and federal agents swept through neighborhoods in northeast Kansas City to arrest “the city’s most violent criminal groups.”
Dubbed “Operation Ice Melt,” the enforcement sweep netted 54 arrests. It was orchestrated by the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVa, a collaborative law enforcement effort launched two years earlier by local, county and federal authorities.
It was the newest, best hope for an answer to the high homicide rate that has plagued the city for decades, putting it on top 10 lists for most violent cities. At the time, it was considered cutting-edge.
“This big bust that KC NoVa did became the holy grail of law enforcement successes,” said Bryan Stalder, president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association, near where police made the sweep. “It looked like that impacted everything and crime went down that year.”
Indeed, by the end of 2014, homicides in Kansas City dropped to a historic low. City and community leaders praised the decrease in killings and violent crimes and attributed that success to KC NoVa.
But in the years since then, homicides have steadily increased, nonfatal shootings have skyrocketed and KC NoVa has yet to duplicate that success.
Feds have said it had no effect.
And now KC NoVa is being replaced, police resources have been moved out and key crime-fighting elements, once considered innovative, have been discontinued. Authorities haven’t done a “call-in” — a signature feature of KC NoVa, in more than a year.
Law enforcement officials are now touting a federal initiative that has existed for nearly 20 years.
“We didn’t expect to be here but this is where we are,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, one of the key architects of KC NoVa.
“It is not like we have dismantled NoVa but there are pieces of NoVa that we are no longer doing.”
On Friday, Baker is scheduled to join Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith, along with federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse on East Ninth Street in downtown Kansas City to announce a different violence reduction initiative.
That effort, “Project Safe Neighborhoods” has been around since 2001. Federal authorities relaunched it last year under an effort announced by then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It targets the “most violent and persistent offenders.”
The Department of Justice has funneled $380,000 into the region this fiscal year to help in the effort.
Police departments can use the money to hire researchers who will identify the most prolific offenders based on their criminal past, how often they come in contact with police and the types of crimes they are accused of committing. Officers will be deployed to gather evidence on offenders and arrest them.
Similar efforts in Tampa and Camden, New Jersey, have helped reduce crime and gun violence, said Tim Garrison, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
“We are taking a gamble based off of the experience in other communities,” Garrison said. “There is no guarantee but we are taking a calculated risk that is based on what has shown to be effective in other cities and we hope to replicate that here.”
The goal is to recreate the early success of KC NoVa.
“NoVa has been effective in reducing group-based violence but the numbers are still unacceptably high,” he said.
The KC NoVa strategy, known as focused deterrence, was based on the concept that only a small group of individuals are responsible for most of the violent crimes. Authorities identify those individuals and their cliques and focus law enforcement efforts on them.
The strategy used “call-in” sessions where violent offenders heard from organizers, community activists, former offenders and relatives of murder victims. Offenders were told to change their behavior or find themselves back in jail. In turn, they were offered social services to help stop.
The offenders met with social workers who helped with job training, substance abuse and mental health issues, housing and education services. Many former offenders would earn their general education diploma or GED.
The Kansas City Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the city of Kansas City were among those involved.
When the program was fully operational, the police department staffed KC NoVa with as many of 10 people that included a project manager and a team of officers who conducted enforcement sweeps.
The department operated a Violent Crimes Enforcement Division. The unit had the dual task of investigating and arresting violent offenders for KC NoVa.
Baker said the Police Department has pulled away from some aspects of KC NoVa. Police staff that were once housed in the prosecutor’s office later moved to another location.
For their part, the Police Department said their participation in KC NoVa continues. But they have changed how those resources are used and where some of their officers are assigned.
“These squads were disbanded and reabsorbed back into patrol,” said police spokesman Capt. Tim Hernandez. “The members that were in these squads continue to participate in the NoVa project. They were just reassigned.”
Hernandez did not say how many officers and support staff assigned to KC NoVa, but the police department still has a project manager assigned to the effort.
“We want to reduce violent crime and hold offenders accountable for their actions while providing alternative options to violence,” he said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has five agents and officers assigned to help investigate gun related crimes. Spokesman John Ham said the agency remains on the KC NoVa’s governing board and is an active partner.
Five years after KC NoVa was created, a federal agency concluded the program wasn’t working.
An evaluation by the federal National Institute of Justice said “there was no statistically significant impact on homicides two years post implementation or no effects.”
That analysis was based an evaluation done by criminologists Ken Novak and Andrew Fox that was published in February 2018. It concluded that during NoVa’s third year, overall and group-related homicides returned to the levels seen before the program was launched.
“After achieving significant first-year reductions, despite robust implementation and fidelity, violence returned to pre-implementation levels by the third year,” according to Novak, who is a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Fox, formerly of UMKC, who is now is an assistant criminology professor at California State University in Fresno.
Novak and Fox helped create of KC NoVa. The two used computer-generated maps that revealed connections among the active criminal groups. Those maps enabled law enforcement to identify offenders as well as determine which of them served as group leaders.
In recent years, KC NoVa had problems identifying specific violent groups and their leaders. Often, those individuals were connected to gangs or loosely-organized cliques.
In the years since, Kansas City has made little progress getting rid of violent crime.
After reaching the historic low of 82 homicides in 2014, the numbers climbed again. The city recorded 111 homicides in 2015 and 131 in 2016.
In 2017, Kansas City’s homicide rate ranked fifth among major U.S. cities, with 151 killings. By comparison, Chicago was listed at No. 9. In 2018, Kansas City had 138 homicides.
So far in 2019, Kansas City has recorded 59 killings as of Thursday. At the end of May, the Police Department reported 172 nonfatal shooting victims.
”It was really hard for us to be effective with that particular type of model right now at this flashpoint in time,” said Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor. ”You ask me why that is, I just don’t know why.”
Some elements of KC NoVa will remain. Social workers continue to meet with former offenders and help secure jobs and drug and mental health treatment. Workers also help offenders buy clothing and personal items.
Another related program, Teens in Transition continues to work with at-risk youth, teaching conflict resolution skills, job training and art therapy.
But KC NoVa as it was conceived in 2013 is no more.
“Because we couldn’t sustain it for whatever reasons, it is time to move on and try something different rather than throw in the towel,” Baker said. ”But this is not throwing in the towel, this is a re-tooling.”