Almost every day, Tasha Brown has the same conversation with her daughter, Tyra.
“I miss you. I love you and I’m proud and grateful that God allowed me to be your mom,” Brown says.
Brown doesn’t wait for a response. Instead she closes her eyes and allows memories of her 19-year-old daughter to wash over her.
Memories are all that Brown has left.
On April 17 an unknown gunman opened fire, wounding Tyra Tiana Brown as she and her boyfriend sat in a parked car outside a late-night house party at 45th Street and Elmwood Avenue.
In the first six months of 2016, she is one of 50 homicide victims in Kansas City. That’s 13 more than the city had this time last year — a 35 percent increase.
Tyra’s death, along with 28 other homicides so far this year, remains unsolved.
A national expert recently pointed out that Kansas City was among the top 10 cities with the highest increase in homicides over a two-year period.
Experts and police officials in Kansas City say the recent increase might, unfortunately, be a return to the usual.
In his recent national homicide study, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, ranked Kansas City ninth among cities such as Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, Orlando and St. Louis. Many showed startling spikes in homicides.
“The homicide increase in large cities in 2014-2015 was quite real,” Rosenfeld said. “We are looking at a sizable increase and it is also a very abrupt increase.”
What that means for Kansas City, and what is driving the recent upturn in homicides, is unclear.
Kansas City landed on Rosenfeld’s list by returning to typical homicide levels after an historic low in 2014. That year, the city celebrated its lowest homicide total in more than four decades, 82.
The next year, the number of killings rose again, reaching 111 in 2015. That was the worst since 2011 but still in line with a long-term downward trend in homicides, which peaked in 1993 at 153.
This year, the city is halfway to 100 as it enters summer, a season that usually sees an increase in shootings.
“I am as frustrated by this as anyone in this city,” Police Chief Darryl Forté wrote in a blog last month about the city’s murder rate. “Lives are being lost senselessly.”
Kansas City is at about the same level now as it was in 2012, when the city ended the year with 106 homicides.
“They have remained steady here,” Forté said. “Of course I want there to be fewer murders and acts of violence, but it’s going to take time to turn around a culture of violence acceptance that has been years in the making.”
Last year, domestic violence and crimes against children contributed to the increase in homicides.
So far this year, no similar pattern has emerged. Victims include 18-year-old Daizsa Laye Bausby, who was found dead in a south Kansas City motel room earlier this year, and 4-year-old Mahsaan Kelley-Wilson, who was fatally shot as his family drove home from a Father’s Day family cookout.
Of the homicides this year where the motive was known, 12 resulted from arguments, five were caused by domestic violence, three came from conflicts over drugs, five occurred during holdups and one was a retaliation killing, police said.
Kansas City’s ranking in the homicide study appeared to be a question of timing and a limited sample of years, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Kansas City’s return to average in 2015 stands in stark contrast to the generational low homicide rate in 2014, Novak said.
Larger cities such as Cleveland experienced an 11 percent reduction in homicides from 2013 to 2014. So its 90 percent increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015 seems even more dramatic, Novak said.
“This is where things can get a little funny with numbers and comparing only one year to the next,” he said. “Had Kansas City not had generational lows in 2014, then it wouldn’t have been identified as a top 10 city in this report and would have been near the bottom of that list.”
In 2014, officials attributed the decline in killings to the work of the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.
KC NoVA identifies and focuses on members of criminal groups, who historically are responsible for most of the city’s homicides.
About 67 percent of homicides in Kansas City are associated with the groups NoVA investigates.
The national homicide rate for all people is 2.2 per 100,000. In Kansas City, it’s about 22.2 per 100,000. But for members of the group NoVA has identified, the homicide rate is 550 per 100,000, Forté said.
Tasha Brown and her husband, Tyrese, said they didn’t want their daughter to be another name on the list of Kansas City homicide victims, because she was so much more.
“She was a loving, kind, forgiving and God-fearing young lady who touched the lives of everyone she came in contact with,” Tasha said.
That was evident by the 500 people who packed the church at Tyra’s funeral, which included a performance by the choir at Olathe East High School, where she graduated a year ago.
Tyra, a resident of Overland Park, attended Johnson County Community College and had plans to become a pediatric nurse.
Her parents weren’t aware until after her death that Tyra frequently visited the elderly at her church and others to brighten their day.
She was a member of the praise team along with her parents at Greater Works Family Worship Center in south Kansas City. Tyra wrote and recorded inspirational songs that spoke of adolescent uncertainties and self-esteem.
Family and friends keep her spirit and their memories of her alive with Tyra Tuesdays. Each week, the group goes out and finds classmates, friends, church members and others to encourage and inspire them.
“We help them understand that Jesus loves them and we encourage them to do better, to love harder and laugh more because that’s what Tyra would want,” Tasha Brown said.
The killing of 4-year-old Mahsaan also moved others in the community who know the dangers of violence as well as anyone.
About a dozen members of a new neighborhood anti-violence group — mostly men who have been involved in gang life and crime in the past — attended Mahsaan’s vigil.
The group, 100 Men of Blue Hills, formed earlier this year to stop violence through grass-roots organizing and conflict resolution, said Andre Thurman Sr., the director. Many of the members also have been involved in other local anti-violence groups such as Aim4Peace.
By intervening in their neighborhoods, where they know the individuals and the problems, 100 Men of Blue Hills hopes to cool down disputes before they escalate to homicide.
“I grew up around that,” said Thurman, 42. But the killings of children such as Mahsaan motivate his group to do something to help.
“I think it was more the murder of the women and children that started to get under the skin of a lot of people on the streets,” Thurman said.
Thurman said he was disappointed in efforts by Kansas City leaders to stop the violence. Some leaders of institutions are too far removed from the problems in the community, he said, and those who are on the front lines don’t get enough resources.
“One of the biggest problems is the leadership in this city,” he said. “They’re just not doing it.”
Thurman said his group also is aware that homicides disproportionately hurt African-American neighborhoods.
“So we feel we have this responsibility,” he said. “That’s why we feel like we’re the main ones, or the only ones, who can deal with it.”
Forté said that in an effort to stem violence, NoVA is working with Kansas City Public Schools to create after-school programs. The initiative would provide additional educational opportunities while keeping kids out of trouble.
But more is needed, he said.
“Everyone first must understand it has taken decades and generations for today’s culture of violence in the urban core to form,” Forté said. “That is not going to change overnight or even in two years.”