Crime

Amid a crackdown on violent criminals, Kansas City homicides sharply decline

Bell-bottoms were in style and Richard Nixon was president the last time Kansas City recorded fewer than 80 homicides in a year.

But with 77 killings in 2014, the city achieved its lowest total since 77 killings in 1972.

The milestone, a 23 percent reduction from 2013, broke a string of six years with more than 100 killings.

While pleased with the decrease, Police Chief Darryl Forté said he has looked into too many anguished faces of mothers and fathers of homicide victims to be satisfied.

“It’s too soon for premature celebration,” the chief said. “There is much more work to be done.”

The most visible part of the effort has been the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, a concerted partnership of local leaders and organizations, modeled on successful programs in other cities, that cracks down on the people and groups identified as the community’s most violent. At the same time it offers social service help to those seeking a way out of a criminal life.

Mayor Sly James said he believes KC NoVa has had a real effect.

“It’s a decent start,” the mayor said. “But we need to make sure that KC NoVa is sustained over time.”

James and other NoVa leaders say that even as it appears to offer a strong payoff, they are continually looking at ways to refine and hone what they are doing.

Although homicides were down, the number of aggravated assaults with a firearm increased slightly from the previous year.

“We can do better,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

While KC NoVa has become the high-profile image, behind the scenes Baker’s office and the Kansas City Police Department have instituted major organizational changes.

For KC NoVa to work, it needs accurate intelligence on violent people — mostly young men — and whom they are associating with. To that end, Forté has established the Law Enforcement Resource Center to gather tips, analyze crime trends and patterns, and share that information across the department in real time.

Crime analysts who used to work independently in each of the department’s patrol areas now work from a central hub.

Forté also believes that his hot spot policing initiative is making a difference. It focuses police resources in the areas of the city where most crimes occur. It requires officers throughout the department, regardless of their positions, to spend time in those communities.

Besides being a visible deterrent to criminals in those areas, officers work to develop better relationships with residents. And the chief believes that effort is paying off with more people willing to come forward and share information with police.

He has never revealed the exact boundaries of those hot spots so criminals won’t find out. But in the Metro and East patrol areas where those hot spots are likely concentrated, there were 37 combined homicides in 2014, compared with 70 in 2013.

In the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, Baker said prosecutors now look beyond simply solving and prosecuting homicides. Instead, they delve into each one to study why it happened. Because homicides and other acts of violence often are committed in retaliation, such insight can be key to interrupting that cycle.

“Violence begets violence,” she said. “We’re asking why and how we can prevent future crimes.”

Prosecutors are now getting involved in homicide investigations sooner, often going to crime scenes so they can work with police to develop cases. The office also has focused on seeking more serious charges and pressing for longer prison sentences.

The number of defendants charged with first-degree murder increased 110 percent from 2013, according to statistics from the prosecutor’s office. There also has been a 32 percent increase in Jackson County cases filed for illegal firearms violations.

“Where violent crime is concerned, we are going to be as aggressive as the law allows,” Baker said.

While the overall number was down, many of the same general homicide trends of past years held true. The preponderance of victims continued to be young black men and boys, and handguns continued to be the most frequently used weapon.

In cases where a motive was known, arguments were the most frequent reasons for killings.

The decrease in killings has allowed detectives to spend more time on cases, and the homicide clearance rate of 58 percent was up slightly from 55 percent last year. Detectives in 2014 also cleared 17 homicides from past years, which was a small improvement from 2013.

Ultimately, Forté said, the decrease in the city’s homicide rate has been a community effort.

“It’s not solely the result of what the police department is doing,” he said. “The entire community is responsible.”

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

Homicide notes

Fatal shootings involving police officers were not included in the 2014 homicide totals as they have been in past years. But even including the five fatal shootings involving Kansas City police in 2014, those 82 killings would still represent the lowest total since 1972. It would also not affect the percentage of reduction when compared with 2013 homicides including police shootings.

Kansas City, Kan., is the only other area city with a significant number of annual homicides. In 2014, the city recorded 30 killings, an increase of one from the previous year. Overland Park, which typically averages two homicides each year, had six killings in 2014, including one on New Year’s Eve morning. Three of the city’s killings occurred during one shooting spree outside Jewish facilities in April.

Other U.S. cities that Kansas City considers “peer cities” had varying homicide rates in 2014. Denver, which records far fewer overall homicides, had a similar reduction of 23 percent. Milwaukee and Oklahoma City experienced decreases of 13 and 18 percent. Memphis saw a homicide increase of 17 percent, while St. Louis, with a total of about 160 homicides, saw a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

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