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Kansas City Gun Violence Is As High As Ever. Are New Police Strategies Imminent?

Chris Haxel
KCUR 89.3
In 2019, Kansas City has logged more homicides through Dec. 22 than all of last year. An interactive map is available below.

Kansas City violence this year has exceeded 2018 totals, and is approaching the modern high-water mark left in 2017, when the city tallied 151 homicides and 505 nonfatal shootings.

A year ago, police saw an improved homicide clearance rate as reason for optimism. This year, the clearance rate sagged while shootings and homicides rose.

Over the summer, Chief Rick Smith announced plans to increase the maximum reward for homicide tips to $25,000. Smith said he got the idea from Omaha, Nebraska, a city of similar size that has about as many homicides all year as Kansas City did in August.

Smith also adopted a new anti-violence strategy that targets so-called “trigger pullers” — people identified as those most likely to commit acts of gun violence in Kansas City.

“This approach has been a great success in cities like Tampa (Florida), which has had a dramatic reduction in violent crime,“ Smith said at a news conference announcing the change in June.

Police from Kansas City visited their Tampa counterparts last spring to learn about that city’s “Violent Impact Player” (VIP) program. Kansas City chose to call its targets “Violent Prolific Offenders,” although it’s unclear whether the department has fully implemented the strategy.

Smith declined to be interviewed for this story.

Kansas City police also visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in recent weeks to learn about that city’s efforts to reduce nonfatal shootings.

Both trips were made as part of a U.S. Department of Justice program called the National Public Safety Partnership. First announced more than two years ago, the program also produced a consultant’s report that suggested Kansas City add eight detectives to its homicide unit.

Smith last month announced plans to do just that, mostly by eliminating the department’s mounted unit.

Still, the violence has persisted. Through Dec. 22 the city saw 146 homicides — 6% more than all of last year — and police expect it to reach 500 nonfatal shootings by the end of the year.

At a national level, it’s likely the homicide rate has remained steady. The FBI won’t release 2019 data until next year, but a preliminary tally by Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst, indicates the homicide total among the nation’s large cities is virtually unchanged from last year.

Smith’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year asks for another 30 police officers. And the U.S. Department of Justice last week announced plans to send a “surge” of federal agents and dollars into the region as part of an effort to combat violent crime in seven cities across the country.

“We need some boots on the ground for investigations,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told KCUR last week. “In order to get more help from (the community) we have to demonstrate that we have the expertise and the willingness to get out there and solve those cases. So if the federal government wants to engage in that way, this could really matter. It could really make a difference.”

Chris Haxel is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email him at chaxel@kcur.org, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaxel.

As a reporter covering military and veterans’ affairs, I tell the stories of current and former service members and their families. I hold the government, elected officials and others responsible when they break their promises. And I explore how Americans can best uphold our commitments to those who serve.
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