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What is Kansas City's new 'focused deterrence' antiviolence program SAVE KC?

Kansas City Police respond to a fatal shooting at 67th Street and Cleveland Avenue on March 22, 2024, in this file photo.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police respond to a fatal shooting at 67th Street and Cleveland Avenue on March 22, 2024, in this file photo.

City leaders are bringing back what they say is an improved “focused deterrence” program to help reduce homicides and gun violence. But critics point to the model's modest, short-term success rates and the way it often targets minorities for “draconian punishment.”

Kansas City’s top leaders are bringing back a project this summer to combat the city’s chronic high rate of violence. Newly branded “SAVE KC” – Stand Against Violence Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day – is a national model called “focused deterrence.”

In an opinion piece for the Kansas City Star, Police Chief Stacey Graves, Mayor Quinton Lucas and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said SAVE KC is an enhanced version of the model that gives those most at risk an ultimatum:

“Put down the guns and leave behind crime, and we will help you obtain the resources to get your life back on track to succeed. Or, you will face the full consequences of the law, with swift and certain consequences.”

What is “focused deterrence?”

First created in Boston in the 1990s to combat gang violence, focused deterrence is a popular program also called “pulling-levers policing.” It’s based on the idea that crime is typically concentrated among a small number of prolific or repeat offenders. Law enforcement, community groups and social service providers meet with individuals they identify using police intelligence to offer them tailor-made services. They are also warned of the consequences if they don’t cooperate, which include prosecution and jail time.

What are the criticisms of focused deterrence?

Philip McHarris, an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Rochester, said the programs sound much better in theory than in practice. He says they result in locking up lots of people from marginalized groups.

“The programs rely on the intense threat of draconian punishment, and in some cases, widespread incarceration,” said McHarris, whose book, “Beyond Policing,” will be published next month.

Poverty has long been a key predictor of violence, McHarris said, and authorities should place more emphasis and funding on social programs instead of law enforcement. For instance, he suggested guaranteed employment initiatives, a universal basic income, after-school programs and other violence interrupters.

“The question we should be asking is, are there other ways of reducing violence that don’t rely on a criminal legal system that has proven itself incapable of actually being a purveyor of justice?” he said.

So is this the grown-up version of KC NOVA?

Leaders don’t like the comparison, but SAVE KC is much like NOVA, the No Violence Alliance that ran from 2013 to 2018. NOVA was a community collaboration of law enforcement and University of Missouri-Kansas City faculty within the Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology.

It folded in 2018 when then-KCPD Chief Rick Smith withdrew the department’s support because he didn’t believe it was effective.

This time around, SAVE KC was built to “make it more restorative and less punitive,” said Mike Mansur, spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office.

“We want them to be open to the message,” he said, although he added, “We’re not going to shy away from enforcement.”

"The program’s leaders have stressed that SAVE KC may use a familiar strategy, focused deterrence, but the SAVE KC coalition has meticulously developed a community-focused program designed to provide restorative support to individuals identified for assistance," Mansur said.

When did SAVE KC begin?

Planning began last January, just days after the city saw its most violent year on record. The program officially kicked off on May 30 when officials held the first “call in,” Mansur said. Twenty people were invited to have dinner with police, prosecutors, local pastors, community groups and neighborhood leaders.

The 19 who came to the event, most of whom were on probation, were told they would get help with what they need most: social services like job training, assistance getting a driver’s license or just a ride to an appointment.

Are these focused deterrence programs effective?


A National Institutes of Health review of 24 studies found that focused deterrence programs have been “associated with moderate reductions in crime.” That said, most of the studies report that the success rate has not been proven long-term and that the social services component were often underfunded or weren’t used.

In addition to Boston; Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Oakland have all used focused deterrence programs, and results have varied.

Was NOVA successful?

In the short term, yes, but not in the long run.

NOVA began in 2012, when Missouri’s homicide rate was ninth-highest in the nation, fueled by deaths in St. Louis and Kansas City.

A 2015 study showed that NOVA had early success and was a “highly interactive, coordinated undertaking.” The program was slow to launch, the study said, and was challenged by the police department’s organizational structure and reluctance to innovate.

“While homicides continued to decline modestly there was indications that gun-related aggravated assaults began to regress to the mean, raising questions about the long-term effectiveness of focused deterrence,” the study found.

Mansur said the Kansas City team has learned from past mistakes to broaden their work under SAVE KC.

“In a true collaboration, you have to look at your flaws and make adjustments,” Mansur said.

What’s next?

The program doesn’t have an end date, Mansur said. The next call-in is expected this summer.

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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