Law enforcement officers in Kansas City are engaged in an innovative approach to fighting violent crime.
In 2016, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Kansas City Police Department won grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to use data and community involvement to attack the city’s violent crime rate. Funds are being matched locally.
It’s led by a Yale Law School graduate with roots in the Mennonite community of Newton, Kansas.
Kate Brubacher finds herself digging into the messy tension between high-crime neighborhoods, mostly communities of color, and the cops.
“Look, we need law enforcement. Every community will tell you there are people who need to be removed from the streets,” she says. "Every community member I talk to, they will tell you there are people who need to be removed from the streets. But let’s be smarter about who needs to be removed and community members that need to be empowered, and these people are living on the same block.”
Violence reduction one block at a time
Last summer, Brubacher, along with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and some cops, were on the 2400 block of Denver Avenue, just east of Van Brunt Boulevard in the historic Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. It’s in one of the most concentrated violent crime areas in the city, according to police statistics, and it's one of five focus areas for the study.
In work gloves and jeans, they were picking up trash, yard waste and spent needles from vacant homes, magnets for squatters, drug dealers and rodents. They served hot dogs for lunch.
Seven-year-old Di’Mon Jackson’s family lived on the block. Brubacher’s long, blond braid reminded the little girl of her favorite character and song from the 2013 animated movie "Frozen."
“You look like Elsa!” she squealed, and broke into singing “Let It Go.” Brubacher, the mother of young children and obviously familiar with the tune, joined in.
As part of the grant, Brubacher’s team has enlisted Legal Aid of Western Missouri to hold absentee landlords accountable, and has worked with the city to decide whether blighted homes should be demolished. Prosecutors and police want the community to see they’re interested in addressing problems that create crime, not just showing up to put someone in handcuffs.
I went back to the block recently, and met and Di’Mon’s mother, Denise Jackson, on the sidewalk in front of her house.
Her sister-in-law and two nephews were riding scooters on the sidewalk. The city’s 17th homicide this year occurred at the end of February just a few houses away from where Jackson lives. She’s one of the few neighborhood residents who's connecting with police and prosecutors. Some people don’t like it.
“They’ll call us the snitchers or snitches, and I’m like, I’m not snitching on anyone in particular. You know, this where my kids gotta lay their heads,” she says. “We can’t live comfortable if every other night we hear, ‘Oh well, somebody get shot up.’”
Creative approaches to reducing violence
Here are some of the ways the program’s addressing Jackson’s fears.
Prosecutors are working in micro-geographic areas to get to know community members and their concerns.
One attorney will handle a case from beginning to end, allowing victims of crime to avoid having to tell their stories over and over. Studies show that this kind of “vertical prosecution” preserves information and emotional investment, and results in sentences that more accurately reflect the offense.
They’re also expanding victim’s services to address the trauma from violence — even if charges are never filed.
And prosecutors are being given some discretion to divert less violent crimes to “restorative justice,” a mediation between offenders and victims or trained community surrogates.
I sat in on one such session at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Kansas City. A “neighborhood accountability board” had been convened to give an offender feedback and recommend a sentence that emphasized rehabilitation and restitution.
A lanky man wearing a turquoise crocheted skull cap was leaning on the conference table, his arms folded in front of him (we’re not using his name to protect other parties).
“So, I started drinking the vodka, mixing it with the wine and we were arguing back and forth and before you know it, I snapped,” he said in soft, direct delivery.
He explained why he responded by punching the man he was arguing with, breaking his nose. He said he grew up around violence, that it’s the only way he knew to react to conflict. He’s done time in prison for previous assaults. For this offense, he did three months in the county jail and doesn’t want to go back.
“I feel very remorseful for the guy. And I wish he was here today," the offender said.
The victim had chosen not to attend the mediation.
“It’s been many times I want to find him and really apologize to him."
Across the table, Brian Goines, Sr., a local pastor built like a fire hydrant, said he gets it. He had committed several assaults and been assaulted as well. In a gentle voice, he told the offender this process wasn’t about him.
“You say you want to see (the victim) face-to-face,” Goines said. “Well, his healing is not based on what you want. When you hurt someone, you don’t get to dictate what the healing is, you know what I’m saying?”
The only thing the victim had requested was that the offender get a substance-abuse assessment.
That assessment became one item in a long list of recommendations the board made that day. It also included mediation with the mother of his children, with whom he had a lot of conflict, and counseling for anger management.
Evolving strategies to deal with violence
Criminologist Andrew Fox, a partner on the study, is currently at California State University, Fresno, but he used to be at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When he lived here, he worked with KCNoVA, the No Violence Alliance, a collaboration between academics, politicians, law enforcement and activists.
Fox says NoVA worked, at first.
When NoVa started in 2013, the number of homicides in Kansas City dipped from 100 to 82. But it began to climb over the next several years. By 2017 it reached 150, the highest since the crack cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s.
"The streets got used to NoVA," he says.
He explains that gang members typically last a year or a year and a half. New members came up knowing about NoVA, and how to limit its effectiveness.
Using a medical analogy, Fox says violent crime is like a virus or bacteria: Those who are trying to treat it must be constantly vigilant about the ways it's mutating on the street.
"A medicine ... reduces things immediately, but the medicine has to keep changing," Fox says. "(Violence reduction) has to be an evolving strategy where you're using data to address that problem on a constant basis."