People are less likely to commit crimes when they think they’ll get caught.
That seeming truism, which is supported by research and the Department of Justice, led the Kansas City Police Department to make some changes this year after a wave of violence in 2017 sent the homicide rate to levels not seen in more than two decades.
Chief Rick Smith sent a social worker to each of the city’s six patrol division stations. He sent an “impact squad” to Northeast Kansas City, which saw 11 homicides last year and so far has none this year.
But the department also made a seemingly simple change that could have an outsize impact: Officials decided to give homicide detectives more time to solve homicides.
Homicide detectives used to handle natural death investigations, says Maj. Tye Grant, who heads the department’s violent crimes division. Before this year, homicide detectives were frequently sent to investigate deaths that didn’t have any signs of foul play and were eventually ruled accidental.
That not only created a bigger workload, but also led to work schedules that sometimes made it tough for the detectives to work on their other cases.
Starting in January, Grant says, the administration shifted those duties to other officers so the department’s 24 homicide detectives could focus solely on investigating homicides.
As a result, Grant says, detectives have solved more murders this year than in the past.
The FBI says about 62 percent of homicides were solved nationwide in 2017. Cities with populations similar to Kansas City had a rate closer to 53 percent, and that’s about where Kansas City stood in 2016. Last year it rose to 58 percent.
But through Dec. 20 of this year, Grant says the department’s 128 homicides have a clearance rate of 74 percent.
FBI statistics categorize a homicide as “cleared” if an arrest has been made or the case is otherwise solved. If a homicide is solved in the year after it takes place, it counts toward the current year’s clearance rate.
“In years past the inability to solve homicides... put a false impression out there that (criminals) can get away with these actions and shooting each other,” Grant says. “If you look at our clearance numbers... they’re higher than any year I can find.”
That's the good news. The bad news is that Kansas City’s homicide rate remains among the nation’s worst.
The city’s 151 homicides in 2017 gave Kansas City the fifth-highest murder rate in the country, according to an analysis by The Trace.
Through Dec. 20, Kansas City tallied 128 homicides, which would have placed the city ninth based on last year’s numbers.
But the homicide rate has likely dropped this year in cities across the country, says New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher.
In early December, he collected data from 66 of the country’s largest cities and found they’re on pace for about 7 percent fewer homicides on average compared to 2017.
“It's better than what happened in 2015 and 2016 where the U.S. saw about a 25 percent increase in murders,” he says. “But it's still not a thing that you could... declare victory. There's still a lot of work in terms of murder reduction to be done across the country.”
In Kansas City the murder rate rose 55 percent from 2014 to 2016. Last year it climbed another 13 percent.
Homicides this year are on pace to drop back to 2016 levels but Asher cautions against reading too much into year-over-year changes.
“Murder can be random,” he says. “Any year-to-year change could have a local cause. It could be due to a change in law enforcement, it could just be due to a change in luck or randomness.”
Either way, Grant says that while even solving every homicide might discourage some people, it won't address the underlying causes that lead people to consider committing crimes in the first place.
"That's something that has to be fixed in a home, within a neighborhood, within our schools, within our communities... It's not fixed by putting more handcuffs on people."