Kansas City Grasps For Solutions To A 4-Year Wave Of Gun Violence | KCUR

Kansas City Grasps For Solutions To A 4-Year Wave Of Gun Violence

Aug 29, 2019

Eight-year-old Brian Bartlett was asleep in his home earlier this month when someone sprayed dozens of bullets into his bedroom. 

While his death was shocking, Kansas City is now four years into a wave of increased killings and officials are grasping for solutions.

Police quietly shifted their anti-violence strategy months ago. But it might not be the solution officials hope for.

Not long after the shooting, Bishop Tony Caldwell and about fifteen other volunteers canvassed the neighborhood around the boy’s home, asking neighbors if they saw something – anything – that might help police identify a suspect.

“This family should not have to go through this alone,” Bishop exclaimed. “They should not have to wake up in the morning and figure out how they're gonna bury a 8 year old.”

“That baby did not ask for this,” he said. “We must do something different!”

Kansas City police have tried a couple of new things this summer. 

First, they increased the maximum reward for homicide tips to $25,000. 

Police chief Rick Smith also mentioned a new strategy that will target people who, he said, “are frequently involved in violent, gun-related crimes. This approach has been a great success in cities like Tampa.” 

Captain Paul Lusczynski of the Tampa Police Department said the numbers speak for themselves.

“The first six months of 2015 we had 90 non-fatal shootings in the city of Tampa,” he said. “The first six months of this year we’ve had 30.”

Lusczynski said groups and gangs were responsible for most of Tampa’s gun violence. 

But his officers are hyper-focused on about 50 members they think are most likely to shoot someone, based on factors like arrest history or connections to other shootings.

“Fortunately for all of us, there’s very few people in society that are actually willing to pull the trigger on a firearm,” he said.

Lusczynksi said Tampa has reduced its gun crime almost 50 percent since 2015. But the city didn’t just change its anti-violence strategy. 

Tampa also adopted new technologies to investigate crime, and it created a violent crimes division separate from homicide detectives or patrol officers. 

Police found dozens of bullet holes in the exterior walls surrounding Brian Bartlett's bedroom. Nearly three weeks later, police have yet to make an arrest in connection with the 8-year-old's death.
Credit Chris Haxel / KCUR 89.3

If that sounds familiar, it should. Kansas City police have made many of the same changes since 2013, when the city unveiled a new initiative called the No Violence Alliance.

For the first time ever, the mayor, police chief, Jackson County prosecutor and other officials were going to start working together. 

They chose a strategy called “focused deterrence.” The idea was to home in on gangs and groups most likely to commit gun violence. 

But there was a twist. Instead of simply arresting gang members, police gave them a choice: keep breaking the law and get in trouble, or accept their offer to help with jobs, education and social services.

And it worked. In 2014 Kansas City had 82 homicides, the fewest since 1972. But then, according to former UMKC criminologist Andrew Fox, “it just stopped being as effective. The gangs kind of got used to it.”

Fox, who helped implement the focused deterrence strategy used by NoVa, compared gun violence to the flu. In some ways it stays the same, but it also evolves, so researchers need to make a new flu vaccine every year. 

“Where NoVa kind of ran into a wall a little bit is that, once this new intervention stopped working, what next?” Fox said.

Thomas Abt is a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Abt wrote “Bleeding Out,” a book about strategies for reducing urban gun violence.

“Anti-violence strategies need to be reexamined and need to evolve over time,” Abt said. “But it's also important to have continuity. The examples that I've seen of success all around the country are strategies that change a little bit, in response to changing conditions on the ground.”

Abt said Oakland, California, tried focused deterrence three times before finding the right formula to reduce gun violence.

Kansas City’s new strategy tweaks who is targeted. But it abandons the idea of offering people a way out. If the old way used a carrot and stick approach, the new method is all stick.

Back in Tampa, police have started to dabble with the idea of offering their “trigger pullers” a way out.

“We also try to do focused deterrence where we meet some of these guys and try to convince them to go in a different direction,” said Lusczynksi, the Tampa police captain. “That’s not as successful as we’d like it to be, but that’s something we’re going to work on to see if we can make it more successful.”

If Tampa figures out how to make focused deterrence successful, perhaps Kansas City’s abandoned experiment could be revived.

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