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Is ‘Ferguson Effect’ Behind High Number of Kansas City Homicides?

Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3

The high number of murders in Kansas City is a concern for the third year in a row, with homicides jumping some 43 percent over last year.

The city's 86 homicides during 2017 so far are 26 more than the same period last year, according to crime statistics. Kansas City was named one of 12 cities that will receive aid from the federal government because of the rise in violent crime.

Officials blame a host of problems – racism, drugs, poverty, domestic violence and access to firearms – for the spike.

One criminologist points to another possible factor: “the Ferguson effect.”

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the so-called Ferguson effect is named after the 2014 police shooting death of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

In a U.S. Justice Department report, Rosenfeld says the effect could either be the police holding back for fear of criticism or ugly cell phone videos, or it could be the community holding back because people distrust or feel alienated from the police.

“(People are) less likely to contact the police when they have information about a crime, less likely to cooperate with the police and investigations of individual crimes and perhaps individuals are more likely to take matters into their own hands,” he tells KCUR.

While trending down nationally, homicides have soared in Kansas City since 2014 and officials are perplexed about how to combat the problem. Many advocates working on non-violence initiatives say a large number of murders can be attributed to retribution. That could also be linked to the Ferguson effect, Rosenfeld says.  

“That would be the kind of homicide you would expect to go up as either the police are withdrawing or the community is sick and tired of the police, whatever the combination might be,” he says.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James formed a Citizens Task Force on Violence, which found that the city has many of the necessary tools in place, but groups aren’t working together. One of the task force’s recommendations was to create a full-time staff position to coordinate the city’s violence prevention efforts, and that hire is expected this month.

Another effort, the No-Violence Alliance, is a collaboration of several groups, including the Jackson County prosecutor’s office and the Kansas City police.

For more in-depth coverage of Kansas City’s murders, read part one of KCUR’s series “The Argument.”

Peggy Lowe is KCUR's investigations editor. She's on Twitter @peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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