Guest Commentary

KC is on track for a record number of homicides in 2019. It doesn’t have to happen

Police officers investigate a shooting that killed two men Aug. 25 outside the Brush Creek Community Center in Kansas City.
Police officers investigate a shooting that killed two men Aug. 25 outside the Brush Creek Community Center in Kansas City. The Star

Kansas City is among the five most violent cities in the country. In 2019, we are on course to record the most homicides in our city’s history. Innocent children die in their beds. Beloved civic events end in death, and hundreds of family members are left to suffer. Our city must demand that the gunfire stop.

Violence is a complex problem to treat. It takes commitment and coordination from the entire community. However, effective public safety initiatives are not a mystery. Other cities have reduced violence and kept it low. We should expect our leaders to put forth deliberate strategies to address violence in Kansas City. We need a portfolio of evidenced-based violence prevention strategies, not politically popular approaches with little prevention value. DARE, gun buybacks, juvenile curfews, “take back the streets” events and the Police Athletic League all may serve a purpose, but none of these approaches has demonstrated the type of effectiveness to be a centerpiece of Kansas City’s approach.

In the short term, law enforcement and community members should identify and focus on high-risk people, high-risk places and high-risk activities, including drug trafficking — not drug possession or use, but trafficking. Drugs do not increase violent crime, but drug trafficking and drug markets do.

In the medium term, we must begin the difficult work of moving institutions and laws:

▪ Focus on gun accessibility. Places with more guns and greater accessibility have more gun violence. This is not just common sense; it’s supported by science. Guns are used in the vast majority of homicides. Gun violence is often opportunistic, spontaneous and reactive, and the presence of guns makes conflicts more fatal. States with restrictive gun laws have fewer gun-related crimes (and gun-related suicides). States with looser gun laws experience the opposite. Missouri has among the loosest and least restrictive gun laws in the U.S., and its homicide rates are among the nation’s highest. This will not change unless the residents of Kansas City and those elected to serve them demand change.

▪ Focus on the jail. Jackson County’s jail facilities are smaller than other similarly-sized metropolitan areas’, and they’re not big enough. There are too few beds for violent offenders, which adds to our violence problem because many shootings are retaliatory. Jail time can be a cooling off period for both the incarcerated and those seeking to cause them harm. There is a nationwide push to reduce jail populations, but Kansas City is unusual in that it cannot house all of its dangerous offenders. Dedicating public resources to a new jail may be a difficult task, but it is a necessary part of the evidence-based violence prevention portfolio for both short- and long-term success.

▪ Focus on technology. Gunshot detection systems, mapping networks of ballistic evidence gathered at shootings and high definition cameras often provide the evidence that solves cases. Moreover, these technologies act as deterrents merely by making their locations public. Kansas City needs better technology in high-risk areas than its current ShotSpotter system.

In the long term, a violence reduction strategy must address public trust of the criminal justice system. Too many crimes go unsolved. Kansas City’s clearance rate for all crimes, including violent ones, is lower than peer cities’. Clearance rates are low because victims and witnesses are reluctant to participate in the criminal justice process, which they don’t trust or view as unfair. Low clearance rates just add to this cynicism. Witnesses and victims know there’s little chance cases will be solved, so they are not willing to participate. It is a vicious cycle.

Victims must get more attention, if not protection, and they must get it as soon as possible after a crime happens. Law enforcement must also make genuine efforts to build relationships with community members and get to know the individuals who live in the areas they patrol.

We cannot continue to accept this level of gun violence. A generation of children is growing up in fear and sadness, while the city’s growth potential is threatened. We must ask our leaders to work together for a real, evidence-based plan to save Kansas City from gun violence.

Ken Novak is a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.