Domestic violence, unpredictable and often hidden behind closed doors, is fueling a surge in Kansas City’s homicide rate.
And in just nine months, that rate is creeping toward the city’s homicide total for all of last year.
At least 16 of the city’s 73 homicides so far in 2015 rank as domestic-related — a fourfold increase from domestic-related killings in 2014.
In one horrific September incident, three people, including a small child, were fatally shot in a rampage of anger and jealousy.
Beyond the killings, those who work with domestic violence victims say they also notice an increase in incidents being reported and more people seeking help for abusive relationships.
“When we see a domestic violence homicide, there almost always has been some type of abuse — physical or emotional — leading up to it,” said Annie Struby with the Rose Brooks Center in Kansas City.
Kansas City Municipal Judge Courtney A. Wachal said she is alarmed by the high number of cases.
“People are finally recognizing that domestic violence is a real issue, and there have been a high number of cases that are bringing that to light, so it is getting the attention that I think it should be getting all along,” she said. “There is just increasing violence, and hopefully the municipal court will do what they can to stop (it), especially with the recidivism.”
September has been a particularly bad month for homicides in Kansas City.
With 18 so far this month, Kansas City approaches a dubious and disturbing milestone.
It is only three short of the city’s most deadly month on record — August 2008 — when 21 people were killed.
Since then, only one month — September 2008, with 19 — has seen more than 17 homicides.
The recent surge comes at a time when the city had been making significant strides in efforts to prevent homicides through KC <JU>NoVA, the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.
Last year’s total of 80 homicides was the lowest annual number in Kansas City in more than four decades.
But while KC NoVA’s efforts focus on known violent criminals and their associates, officials say that a number of September’s killings involve situations such as domestic violence that are hard to predict and prevent.
Besides domestic-related killings, officials say there have been a number of recent killings stemming from spur-of-the-moment altercations that ended with gunfire.
“When you break the homicides down, there is not an organized group doing anything. There is not a drug or gang nexus,” Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté said. “I am confident that our number won’t reach record levels.”
Instead, the chief said, many killings are being committed by individuals who lack self-control and seem incapable of resolving conflict short of pulling out a gun.
“They get angry and go shoot inside the door of a club. What do you think is going to happen?” Forté said. “Or you get mad at your girlfriend and you shoot her and her boyfriend and the kid.”
At least three of September’s killings were the result of disputes in or just outside bars or nightclubs.
Most recently, former college basketball standout Royce Jeffries was shot to death Sept. 20 at a Troost Avenue club where he was working as a bouncer. Police said a man who had been removed from the club earlier allegedly came back with a gun and fired shots, killing Jeffries and wounding two others.
Earlier in the month, a young man was shot to death after leaving a club near downtown Kansas City, and the next day a 20-year-old woman was fatally shot and her brother was wounded outside a bar in the West Plaza area.
So far this year in Kansas City, at least 22 homicides have been precipitated by some type of argument, according to police.
Recent domestic violence killings include the Sept. 8 triple homicide that took the lives of a 1-year-old child, the child’s mother and her boyfriend. The woman’s former boyfriend was later charged with three counts of murder.
In another September killing, a 5-year-old was shot and killed during an argument when his mother allegedly pulled out a gun and fired at her boyfriend.
“If you look at these individual incidents, how do you stop someone from killing their girlfriend when nobody outside of them knows that there is a problem?” Forté said. “How do you keep someone from killing three people because they are jealous?”
Another indication of the increase in domestic violence killings is the number of female victims. So far in 2015, there have been 16 female victims. There were 11 all of last year.
While all of those deaths were not necessarily domestic-related, nationally the majority of female homicide victims are killed by a domestic partner, according to Struby.
The Rose Brooks Center, which provides shelter and other services for domestic violence victims, works closely with Kansas City police, she said.
When officers respond to a domestic dispute call, they conduct a lethality assessment with victims to determine the potential threat of increased violence to them.
Those at a high risk are referred to providers like Rose Brooks. So far this year, the center has seen more than 1,800 people referred to them as being at high risk, she said.
About half of those have followed up with calls to advocates who work with them to find shelter or access to other services.
Kansas City Municipal Court officials said several of the domestic homicide victims and offenders this year have been involved in prior domestic violence cases.
Last year, the court handled about 4,700 domestic violence cases. There have been about 4,200 this year, and officials expect the number will reach 5,000 by the end of the year.
“The court as a whole is looking at how can we reduce these numbers,” said Wachal. “We are stepping up our supervision and we are trying to hold offenders to be more accountable, but we are looking for what can we do that is more effective.”
Because of the success of KC NoVA in dealing with the most active criminal groups, officials are studying the possibility of adopting a similar strategy toward domestic violence.
“That’s a really interesting idea that could be beneficial,” Struby said.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said programs in other cities are being studied to see if they would be a good fit for Kansas City.
But Baker said officials here want to be cautious and not rush into some new effort that could inadvertently hurt victims.
She believes that more focus needs to be put on the offenders to look at the factors that lead them to act violently.
“It’s a different problem to get at than group-related violence,” she said. “It’s an area we believe requires an academic approach and model.”
For all of its success, officials with KC NoVA say they are constantly looking at ways to improve their efforts.
But the recent surge in homicides will not deter them from continuing their efforts to focus on criminal groups. Studies in numerous cities have shown that a majority of violent crime is committed by a small percentage of the population, they say.
“It’s been a bad, bad month,” said Police Maj. Joe McHale, project manager for KC NoVA. “But it’s one month out of nine. We have to stay the course.”
With KC NoVA, the city is investing in a long-term strategy to reduce violent crime, McHale said.
“We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “We’re not going away.”
Forté said that although it’s difficult to prove that the effort has prevented a homicide, he believes that it has in a number of cases.
While this year’s homicide rate is higher than 2014, when there were 57 at the same time last year, the chief said that last year marked an historic low and that 2015 is trending lower than previous years.
Officials note that before the spike recently, the number of homicides was on par with what was seen at the same time last year.
But beyond the numbers, each killing represents a tragedy for the families involved, and some spark other killings in response.
“Looking and listening to some of them, some of these are retaliations from things that happened two or three years ago,” said Pat Clarke, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
Clarke said some people just don’t seem to value life or they just decide they want to kill somebody.
“It is a heartbreaking thing,” he said. “You sit back and think everything is fine, and then the next minute you have to bury your loved one because somebody didn’t love the one that you loved.”