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As Homicides Reach Record Highs, Kansas City Experts Say To Look Beyond The Numbers

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KCUR file photo
A double shooting in Kansas City late Thursday night pushed the homicide rate to 151, surpassing the previous high mark. One man died of his injuries and a woman was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Community leaders say violent crime is a “public health crisis” as Kansas City faces its deadliest year on record.

Kansas City has reached a grim milestone — a record number of homicides in a year.

Two people died in separate shootings Thursday night, marking the metro’s 150 and 151 homicides so far this year. That number ties the record set in 2017, the highest in recent years.

“We're going to very soon break the homicide rate record in Kansas City. It's inevitable. We're certainly on track to shatter that number,” says Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

While crime has been on the rise across the metro for several years, the city has recorded 35 more killings this year than at the same time in 2019.

Novak says stay-at-home orders and the economic stress of the pandemic have contributed to the rise in homicides in 2020. He also points to the strained relationship between many communities of color and the criminal justice system, following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests.

Even without the impact of these events, he says the city likely would have reached a new milestone this year.

“A lot of gun violence is retaliatory, meaning that yesterday's shooting is setting up tomorrow's shooting. Since gun violence tends to be contagious, it almost has momentum,” says Novak. “So once you get moving in an upward trajectory, it just creates situations where more violence is going to be likely.”

When these records are reached, Novak says homicides have become so commonplace that people often overlook the people and community behind the statistics.

“The numbers matter of course, but it's not just the numbers. It's not just a victim. It's an entire victim’s family and an entire victim’s community that gets lost,” says Novak.

Damon Daniel, president of the AdHoc Group Against Crime, says much of the violent crime that occurs in his community is due to years of physical and mental trauma from surviving a violent act or losing a loved one.

“People are frustrated. People are heartbroken. These widespread acts of violence that are occurring throughout our community have affected many people's ability to resolve conflict peacefully,” says Daniel.

City leaders need to look beyond homicides and look at deeper issues within communities to curtail systematic violence, according to Daniel. He says this means investing in areas struck by poverty and better funding for mental health.

Daniel says this also means making serious policy changes to the Kansas City Police Department to repair its relationship with the community.

“We certainly cannot arrest our way out of this situation. There does need to be a shift in leadership within the police department so that we can have a pathway to build trust,” says Daniel.

The AdHoc Group Against Crime joined other local organizations in recent months calling for the resignation of Police Chief Rick Smith and a decrease to the department’s budget.

Kansas City Mayor Lucas has stated that he has no plans of firing Smith and called demands to defund the police budget “unrealistic.”

Novak says without any changes, it is unlikely the rising trend of homicides will stop anytime soon. The city may see a decrease in gun violence during the approaching winter months, but he says that is due to the usual ebb and flow of crime.