Editorials

Ugly murder rate is perennial problem that tears at the fabric of Kansas City

Scenes like this are far too common in Kansas City: Police show up to investigate yet another homicide.
Scenes like this are far too common in Kansas City: Police show up to investigate yet another homicide. kmyers@kcstar.com

When the official FBI homicide numbers for 2015 were released recently, Kansas City fell into a familiarly awful position.

Specifically, Kansas City last year recorded the fourth-worst murder rate among the nation’s 50 biggest cities, according to The Star’s analysis of FBI and U.S. Census Bureau data.

The city’s 22.9 homicides per 100,000 residents was better than only New Orleans (42.0), Detroit (43.6) and Baltimore (55.3).

This is the fourth year we’ve looked at this metric. And Kansas City has been near the bottom of the rankings each time. It was fifth-worst in 2012, fourth-worst in 2013 and eighth-worst in 2014.

And 2016 is shaping up to be even grimmer. Through Thursday, Kansas City was on pace to have its highest number of murders in the last five years.

On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest rates of homicide among the 50 largest cities were achieved in cities such as Austin and El Paso in Texas; and San Jose and San Diego in California.

Enough with the numbers. Here’s more of what they truly mean.

Each one of these homicides had a ripple effect — on families, on their neighborhoods and on the fabric of this city.

The murders cut short some productive lives. They created grief and anger among families and their relatives. And they created a high cost for the public, as law enforcement officials investigated and prosecuted these cases.

In addition, Kansas City’s image as a violent place to live has long damaged its reputation with local residents — including those who move to the suburbs to try to escape crime — and with people from the outside looking at this region as a place to live and work.

The city has gained population in recent years, including in downtown and midtown neighborhoods, which is excellent news. However, most of that residential growth has occurred in the Northland, far from beleaguered urban core neighborhoods.

If Kansas City’s murder and violent crime rates could fall over a sustained period, that would be a big boost to the city as well as this entire metropolitan area.

Officials at City Hall, the Police Department and other law enforcement agencies have tried various programs in recent years to bring about that positive change.

One prevention strategy — called Kansas City No Violence Alliance — continues to sound like a good idea that simply isn’t working as once hoped.

The goal is to identify people most likely to commit violent crimes and to keep a close eye on their acquaintances, too. The police crack down on the criminals, while other agencies reach out to provide social services such as getting a better education and finding jobs.

When Kansas City’s murders plunged in 2014, the NoVa program appeared to be an essential way to reduce the worst aspects of violent crime. Officials from St. Louis, another city with a very high murder rate that’s not among the 50 largest municipalities anymore, talked to Kansas City in 2015 about NoVa.

On other fronts, Mayor Sly James, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and others have tried to tighten Missouri’s gun laws, to make it more difficult for criminals to get and carry guns. Unfortunately, the General Assembly has ignored these calls from law enforcement officials and recently approved an irresponsible law that will allow people to buy and use guns without training or permits.

Police Chief Darryl Forté is on the right track when he implores residents who know something about homicides to come forward with that information. Keeping that knowledge to themselves or, worse, engaging in revenge violence damages this community.

But whether the Police Department needs more resources in patrol units or in investigating homicides can’t be answered until a promised staffing study is completed. The city and the police need to get this independent review completed as soon as possible.

Other tactics could help.

Murders involving domestic abuse have caught the public’s attention in recent years. That field of violent crimes deserves much more scrutiny.

Too many homicides are committed by people for ridiculous reasons. They include anger over girlfriends, drug deals and who controls “turf” in neighborhoods. The police can’t stop much of that anger from exploding into violent actions.

But good jobs could help. So could better education in public schools. Better ways must be found to help youngsters stay out of criminal activities in the first place.

All of this is difficult and complicated work. Other cities with similar problems — such as Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis — haven’t found any magical, long-term answers either.

Kansas City’s sky-high murder rate is a big black eye that demands full and constant attention from the city’s political, law enforcement and civic leaders. They must stay focused on finding effective ways to reduce homicides and make this community a safer place to live.

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