Yael T. Abouhalkah

KC’s bloody murder rate is finally improving, but not nearly enough

Monique Willis, 40, mother of murder victim Alonzo Thomas IV, who was shot to death on April 5, 2014, is on a personal campaign to raise awareness and reward money in her son’s murder.
Monique Willis, 40, mother of murder victim Alonzo Thomas IV, who was shot to death on April 5, 2014, is on a personal campaign to raise awareness and reward money in her son’s murder. The Kansas City Star

St. Louis has a much higher murder rate than Kansas City. Feel better?

Don’t, because both Missouri cities have had bloody-high homicide totals in recent years.

Recently released FBI statistics show Kansas City had the fourth highest murder rate among the 50 largest U.S. cities in 2013, with 21.3 killings per 100,000 residents. Only Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland were worse.

St. Louis had a murder rate of 37.7, but it’s only the 58th biggest American city, so it wasn’t on that list.

Kansas City reported 99 homicides to the FBI and St. Louis 120.

Over the last year, I have closely reviewed murder numbers across the United States as part of The Star editorial board’s push to see Kansas City lower its disturbing annual tally of fatal shootings and stabbings.

A sustained reduction in homicide could diminish Kansas City’s reputation as an unsafe place to live for too many people. Fewer murders could lead to more residents, more businesses and a higher quality of life — especially in East Side neighborhoods most often affected by violent crimes.

Good news: Murders in 2014 were down 30 percent through November compared to the average of the last four years.

Local officials are using different programs to track criminal suspects and their families. Police are patrolling violence-scarred neighborhoods with many more officers. Mediators are stepping in before retaliation gets out of hand in certain instances. Social service groups are working on systemic changes needed to better educate and provide jobs for people who otherwise might turn to lives of crime.

While all of this is promising, a few other points merit attention.

It took too long for the police, City Council, prosecutors and social service organizations to find ways to effectively attack this problem. After all, Kansas City has averaged just over 100 homicides a year since 2000, constantly placing it among the worst 10 U.S. cities for murder rates.

Plus, the current programs put in place in Kansas City aren’t exactly innovative. Other cities with high homicide totals have tried them in the past.

In Oakland, for instance, murders plummeted 30 percent in 2013. Officials there credit a program that sounds a lot like the KC No Violence Alliance that’s getting plenty of credit for reducing murders here in 2014. Police and service providers focus on violent crime suspects and their families, summoning them to meetings, and giving them access to resources such as housing and jobs. And, like many cities, Oakland police are using data to help recognize crime hot spots.

Murders dropped 25 percent in 2013 in Philadelphia. Officials there identified about three dozen “hot spots” — where more crimes were occurring — for extra policing. A court system overhaul is making it easier to keep fugitives off the street, such as by requiring higher bail.

The good news in Oakland is that murders may drop another 20 percent in 2014; Philadelphia is on track this year to be up only slightly over its 2013 number.

Kansas City, barring a terrible December, could end the year with the fewest homicides since 2004.

Even with this year’s march forward, though, Kansas City’s murder rate in 2014 likely still will be higher than many of its peers, including Denver, Minneapolis, Ft. Worth, Wichita, Omaha and Oklahoma City.

While Kansas City must stay focused on making even more progress in 2015 and beyond in trimming its murder rate, St. Louis is going in the wrong direction.

That city is on pace to surpass 140 homicides in 2014 and, quite possibly, overtake Detroit as the murder capital of America.

To reach editorial page columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @YaelTAbouhalkah.

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