Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas pushed through a couple of minor city ordinances that could help police target a small subset of gun crimes this year. Kansas City police raised the reward for homicide tips and shifted the focus of an existing anti-violence program. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson suggested passing gun laws that mirror existing federal law.
All the while, the city is still bleeding, on pace for about 150 homicides and another 500 nonfatal shootings by the end of the year.
Enter the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced last week a vague plan to deploy a “surge” of federal agents — and millions of dollars — into the region to fight violent crime.
“This is our principal tool for addressing violent crime in cities and it is an effective tool,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference announcing the effort, which involves six other large cities with high rates of violent crime.
Given that local and state officials are spinning their wheels in efforts to combat gun violence, Barr’s “two-pronged attack on violent crime” is the most robust anti-violence initiative in town. But researchers say good police tactics do more to reduce crime than simply adding officers, and previous task forces have led to some controversy.
Although Barr singled out Kansas City, Missouri, as “one of the top five most dangerous cities,” the plan will send resources to agencies on both sides of the state line. Kansas City, Missouri, has for years ranked among the federal court districts with the most gun prosecutions.
Speaking last week in Detroit, Barr said his agency will send additional “agents, analysts and equipment” to the chosen cities. Additionally, $71 million will be distributed among the cities — Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Memphis, Tennessee, and Albuquerque, New Mexico — to help pay for equipment and up to 400 additional police officers.
“It’s intolerable for some Americans to experience high levels of violence and others live in relative peace, so we go where the trouble is,” Barr said about the plan, called “Operation Relentless Pursuit.”
The $71 million is available immediately, and Barr said he expects a “relatively even disbursement” among the cities. If that happens, the Kansas City metro can expect to see an influx of about $10 million.
For comparison, the Kansas City Police Department’s current annual budget is about $250 million. Chief Rick Smith’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year requests another 30 officers, which he estimates would cost $1.4 million.
Don Ledford, spokesman for U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, told KCUR that about 70% of the federal money will be distributed through a grant process that would pay for local departments to send officers to work on joint federal task forces.
Under such arrangements, local officers are typically deputized as federal agents but remain employed by their department. If their salaries are covered by federal grants, KCPD could use the money they save to backfill those positions with new officers.
Ledford said it’s not clear how long the funding will be available, but the project is intended to last “several” years.
It’s also not clear exactly how the government plans to deploy the additional agents and task force officers, though Barr suggested the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would target “the worst trigger-pullers” and the FBI would do “long-term” investigations into gang structures.
Task force efficacy
There are hundreds of federal task forces nationwide. Earlier this month in Kansas City, officials announced the creation of a “Strike Force,” a regional task force that has been secretly operating in the Kansas City region since April. Officials said it targets “drug trafficking organizations that are making the streets of metro Kansas City less safe.”
The task force includes members from an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies, as well as police from Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Federal task forces do not come without controversy. As the Marshall Project reported in October, several large cities have pulled their officers off task forces in recent years, typically citing concerns about oversight and transparency.
Portland, Oregon, pulled its officers over concerns about racial and ethnic profiling.
Atlanta withdrew after one of its officers assigned to a federal task force shot and killed an unarmed man. City officials were concerned that the officer was not wearing a body camera, which was prohibited under federal task force rules. The DOJ has since begun a pilot program that allows some deputized police officers to wear body cameras.
And research studies have shown that increasing the size of a police force doesn’t necessarily reduce crime. In 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati surveyed the results of dozens of studies between 1971 and 2013, and found mixed results.
“Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding police,” the researchers concluded.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told KCUR last week that she welcomes help from the Department of Justice, “if it's the right kind of help.”
“I think is a great idea to hit both sides of state line and to focus on the ‘trigger pullers’ so that we can try and reduce violence in these two cities,” she said.
But she also cautioned against focusing too much on drug dealers and not enough on violent crimes such as nonfatal shootings.
“It's a simple plan but it's one that works, and it's one that's needed in Kansas City because we have so very few of our nonfatal shootings are solved,” she said. “When you're at 20% or below on the solve rate for nonfatal shootings, it's just an unacceptable number. So if we could focus on those types of cases — homicide as well, of course — we could really make a difference in Kansas City.”
KCPD spokesman Sgt. Jake Becchina said in a prepared statement about Barr’s latest task force that the department will “continue to collaborate with our federal partners as we always have. We look forward to accept and apply whatever resources are determined to be designated to us and will apply those resources to the needs of the department.”
Kansas City, Missouri, has logged 145 homicides through Dec. 21, according to police statistics. Officials have said they expect another 500 people to be wounded by gunshots by the end of the year.