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Mayor says Kansas City's violence interrupter program 'deserves real support'

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The violence prevention program Cure Violence employs interrupters from high-crime neighborhoods to implement conflict resolution before a crime occurs or to prevent further escalation.

St. Louis and Kansas City both have programs meant to recognize and interrupt conflicts before they escalate to violence, but the results are very different.

Kansas City is renewing its efforts to interrupt crime before it occurs.

Aim4Peace, Kansas City's model of Cure Violence Global, was implemented in 2008, but with limited data to prove it's effectiveness the program's budget has been cut year after year.

"We couldn't get that support that would allow it to be fully invested in properly and to have the impact that we would hope to see," said Dr. Marvia Jones, Kansas City's health director.

A key piece of the Cure Violence strategy is "interrupters," community members with strong connections and influence in a designated violent neighborhood. Some come with prior criminal backgrounds, but all work to intervene in an attempt to deescalate conflicts.

Due to budget cuts, Aim4Peace has been reduced to five employees — none of whom are interrupters.

Across the state, Dr. Fredrick Echols, St. Louis' health commissioner understands the importance of the interrupters on the street.

In 2021, it's first year of data, St. Louis' Cure Violence program recorded 482 situations de-escalated by interrupters.

"That's pretty large, especially if those numbers could have been assaults with firearms, including homicides," Dr. Echols said.

St. Louis city officials credit the program with reducing killings by 25 percent.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas recently visited St. Louis, to observe its program's work.

"It was amazing to see the work, the de-escalation that's done and the prevention that's done," Lucas said. "That should be the story in Kansas City."

In 2021, Kansas City reported 157 homicides, the second deadliest year on record.

Mayor Lucas said the city needs to take a common sense approach in that if people aren't willing to talk to the police, the city needs to find people they will talk to.

The Cure Violence model is more effective than "classic and traditional enforcement," according to Lucas.

"We've got the biggest problem in the world right now in violent crime in Missouri, and we need to take every solution we can to address it," he said.

"We need a flood of community violence interrupters," according to the mayor. "We need a flood of folks that are helping people deal with and address trauma in our communities and our neighborhoods."

Lucas said the next Kansas City budget proposal allocates additional funding for Aim4Peace.

Spending $800,000 to $900,000 for violence interruption "is a drop in the bucket," says the mayor, "and I think we need to do better, but this is a start."

Critics of the program argue there is limited proof interrupters are preventing crime.

Both health department heads say when it comes to health outcomes, when something doesn't happen, it's difficult to show it's because one thing is working and not the result of something else.

"That's sort of the paradox of public health in general," Dr. Jones said.

The Cure Violence model goes beyond intervening in conflicts. The program also works to solve societal issues that can lead to crime.

"Oftentimes when people are engaging in acts of violence there's a root cause that hasn't yet been identified," Dr. Echols said.

In 2021, St. Louis' program referred more than 400 individuals for housing and employment assistance.

"Interrupting one situation doesn't necessarily change the individual's life trajectory," St. Louis' health commissioner pointed out. "So what we want to do is to help the individual change their environment."

Caseworkers refer at-risk individuals to the support resources needed for housing, employment, or financial instability that may be leading to criminal acts.

Kansas City's health director plans to be more thorough in making sure the community understands the benefits of the program.

"We have to do a much better job going forward of not just focusing our efforts and really making sure the model is understood by the community," Dr. Jones said, "but also making sure that we do a better job of communicating how the program changes the environment in a way that folks can understand."

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz