What can Kansas City learn from New York’s declining murder rate?

File photo of crime scene tape.
File photo of crime scene tape. Big Stock Photo

There is no more urgent task in Kansas City in 2018 than reducing the city’s unconscionably high murder rate.

Yes, that’s easy to say, yet extraordinarily difficult to do. The city’s violent crime crisis is the result of a tangled mix of poverty, police practices, easily available weapons, declining neighborhoods, education, race, culture and more.

But other cities seem to be making inroads. The murder rate in the nation’s 30 biggest cities dropped more than 5 percent in 2017, while Kansas City’s rate jumped nearly 20 percent.

In 2018, Kansas City leaders must learn everything they can about how those cities addressed their violent crime problems, and then apply the lessons here.

Let’s start with New York. It recorded just 290 homicides in 2017, about 3.4 murders per 100,000 people.

By contrast, Kansas City tallied almost 31 killings per 100,000 residents in 2017.

One potential explanation? New York employs about 42 officers per 10,000 residents; Kansas City, just 28. That’s why we’ve argued for some time that the Kansas City Police Department should pursue efficiencies and put more officers on the street.

There may be other important factors. In a recent interview, former New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton credited so-called “broken windows” policing for the drop in crime.

“Beginning in 1990, the New York City police department returned to a mission that was focused on not only dealing with serious crime, but also began to focus on disorder,” he said. “Disorder is described as broken windows, quality of life, minor offenses.”

Not everyone thinks a similar effort would work in Kansas City, which is quite different demographically, economically and culturally from the nation’s biggest city.

Fair enough. But other cities like ours are doing a better job of fighting violent crime: In 2017, the murder rates in Indianapolis, Louisville, Charlotte, Denver and Seattle were all lower than Kansas City’s.

Homicide rates in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Nashville are less than half that rate in Kansas City. Do those cities know something about access to guns that we don’t? Do they have better policing? Better prosecution? A better criminal code?

Murders dropped by close to one-third in Houston and San Diego in 2017. What did those cities do that Kansas City did not? The Board of Police Commissioners and the city’s police leadership should seek those answers.

Missouri has a special responsibility here. It runs the Kansas City Police Department and should hold hearings on the murder crisis here and in St. Louis.

The Kansas City Council could do the same, inviting police officials from other cities to testify.

What Kansas Citians must not do is dismiss the 2017 murder rate as aberrational. We cannot take comfort in a murder rate that’s lower than Detroit’s or Baltimore’s. Kansas City must do better.

“The secret of it all is having good police leaders, good political leadership, community leadership,” Bratton said. “That together is the magic ingredient.”

Kansas Citians don’t expect magic, but they do want answers. In 2018, they must get them.