Crime in KC: Who Has the Answers?

It's an issue that demands community solutions. With a new mayor in 2019, will those solutions come from City Hall?

Kansas City has a crime problem. And police chief Rick Smith is correct when he says that it’s not merely a law enforcement problem, it’s a problem that requires solutions from the entire community.

That includes the civilian leadership. Every four years, voters get to pick that leader in the person of the mayor. As calls for solutions are still building, that election cycle is upon us. On April 2, a field of 11 candidates for mayor will be winnowed to two who will face off in the June 18 general election.

A great deal of attention is being paid to rebuilding the airport and revising development incentives. But where do the viable candidates among that mayoral field stand on the all-important issue of public safety? A request for specific policy proposals from eight candidates produced responses from just three: Steve Miller, Phil Glynn and Jolie Justus. Jermaine Reed, Scott Wagner, Scott Taylor, Alissia Canady and Quinton Lucas did not respond.

But first, some background. Murder, rape, robbery and assault—the offenses that make up the violent
crime category—occurred at a rate of 12.10 incidents per 1,000 of Kansas City’s population in 2017. That the city’s crime rate at nearly five times the national average of 2.10 incidents per 1,000. Placed in starker local terms, the chances that any resident of the state would be victimized by violent crime that year were 1 in 189. In Kansas City? The rate was 1 in 58, or triple the statewide risk.

National rankings lists of dangerous cities continue to tarnish the city’s image in the minds of outsiders, but those compilations overlook a highly salient point: Kansas City broadly doesn’t have a crime problem; Kansas City has a crime problem at its core. And within that core, where the largest
cohorts of the region’s minorities live, black Kansas Citians are bearing the brunt of victimhood.

The Kansas City Police Department operates out of six geographic areas—the Central, Metro, East, North, South and Shoal Creek patrol divisions. Of the 150 homicides recorded in 2017, nearly 75 percent (112) took place within just two of those patrol divisions, Metro and East, which tied for that dubious
distinction with 56 apiece. But inside those numbers:

  • Two out of three homicide victims were black (102); whites accounted for 27.3 percent and Hispanics less than 5 percent. And the 86 black males who died accounted for 57.3 percent of all deaths.
  • Police were able to clear just 43.3 percent of homicide cases, making it more than an even bet that a killer can escape immediate detection.
  • Perhaps most discouraging, in more than half the homicide cases—78—police could discern no motive whatsoever. That has all the hallmarks of violence for the sake of violence.

About the only positive element that can be extracted from that statistical roll call of shame is that the numbers rebut longstanding claims that people turn to violent crime because they have no hope
of gainful employment. The region’s unemployment rate in December, 3.3 percent, was lowest in a generation. 

You can’t swing a dead cat in this town without hitting someone looking to hire. So what do the mayoral candidates in 2019 say they’ll do about crime? 

Calling the homicide count in Kansas City “a crisis,” real-estate developer Phil Glynn said that neighborhood leaders, families, police and prosecutors are on the front lines.

“They’re treating the symptom. They need politicians and business leaders to focus on the disease: economic inequality. Because violence in the community and the failures of the economy are linked, he says, he proposes sweeping changes in housing policy to address a social root cause of crime” “A lack of affordable housing is destabilizing families. Forty-seven percent of Kansas Citians rent their homes, and 49 percent of them pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income to keep a roof over their heads. Production isn’t keeping up with rising rents. It’s why we see the possessions of evicted families piled up on sidewalks. It’s why teachers see students disappear from their  classrooms and reappear in different buildings multiple times each year.

This instability has left many without the skills to take what quality jobs do exist. There are thousands of middle-skill jobs available in Kansas City. But too many people lack the skills training and reliable transportation to take advantage of this opportunity. And as often as we read about open positions
going unfilled, we hear of other business closures. When Harley Davidson’s retreat from the Kansas City market is complete in 2019, about 800 jobs will have been lost.

Let’s ensure that a portion of any new residential development is affordable and create mixed-income communities. Let’s insist that our economic incentives only be used in areas of high poverty and
unemployment to create jobs for thosewho need them most. Let’s broaden our economic development strategy from simply investing in buildings to truly investing in people.

The symptoms are flaring so terribly because we have failed to treat the disease for so long. Our recovery won’t be quick or easy. But the healing can’t start until we make a change.”

City Council member Jolie Justus called violent crime “a long-term, systemic issue that holds us back” as a community. “For decades, our state and city have gotten tougher on crime, but we have just started to get smart on crime,” she says. 

She breaks her crime-fighting strategy into four pieces: a fairer justice system, more consensus with major initiatives that can actually effect change, changes to the police board of commissioners,
and measures to crack down on illegal gun ownership and gun crimes.

  • “Create a Fairer Criminal Justice System: As a state senator, I worked with stakeholders across the state to craft criminal justice reform legislation that directly impacts our community, including a complete revision of the Missouri Criminal Code and the Justice Reinvestment Act. This legislation has
    started us down the path of putting the right people in prison and making sure we have opportunities for people when they re-enter our community. As mayor, I am prepared to continue that work.
  • Build Consensus to Get Things Done: On the City Council, I chaired the Violent Crime Task Force and conducted public meetings in every corner of the city. We drafted recommendations that are being implemented and already showing results, including the funding and implementation of a Comprehensive  Youth Master Plan with the Kansas City Health Department, filling a full-time Violent Crimes Program Coordinator position and working with state legislators to pass a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. As mayor, I will stay focused on these issues and keep concerned citizens working together. Additionally, as a voting member of
    the police board, the mayor has a critical role in the operation of the police department. As mayor, I will be proactive to ensure that Jefferson City appoints a police board that reflects our community.
  • Get Tough on Guns: Throughout my career I have fought to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals. I want to work with legislators in Jefferson City to find areas of agreement on gun safety. For example, allowing law enforcement or family members to red-flag individuals who may be prone to violent behavior that poses a danger to themselves or others and temporarily removing their firearms from their possession is a measure that has generated support from both parties around the country.
  • Support Public Safety Programs: Violent crime in our community is a public health issue and I support evidence-based programs like the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, AIM for Peace and programs that take a public health approach to prevent crime. I support the addition of social workers to our KCPD patrol divisions and an increased focus on community interaction officers.”

Lawyer Steve Miller offered up what he called a bold and aggressive 3-point plan to combat crime, calling the homicide rate here “simply unacceptable.” “It is the fundamental obligation of city government to protect its citizens,” he said. “As mayor, I will make this my highest priority.”

  • His platform is built around city-wide initiatives, neighborhood initiatives, and opportunities for youth:
    The city-wide initiatives include a task force populated by key figures from schools, neighborhoods, police, prosecutors, health-care professionals and  business leaders; aligning school and non-profit programs to address conflict resolution and anger management issues and create after-school work opportunities; and advocating for state legislation giving companies incentivizes to hire at-risk youth. He also calls for more resources to reduce response times, beef up community policing, crisis-intervention training and the Watch KC database, and vows to create a second-chance job-assistance program
    for non-violent offenders, along with programs to address neighborhood blight and either raze or rehab vacant homes.
  •  The neighborhood initiatives include granular identification of specific problems within each  neighborhood, creation of block-captain teams to work directly with police, and adding incentives for officers to live in the neighborhoods they patrol. Also included are expanded use of cameras and technologies like Shot-Spotter and other technology. 
  • Opportunities for youth would focus on improving recreational opportunities in eastside neighborhoods (beginning with a movie theater) bolstering mental-health and physical check-up routines and offering resiliency training for law enforcement professionals, firemen and first responders.
    He would broaden efforts to diversify the department, increase numbers of community information officers, and provide continuing professional development, competitive compensation and secure and fiscally responsible benefits and pensions.

The View From the Police Commission

As president of the Board of Police Commissioners for Kansas City, lawyer Nathan Garrett isn’t concerned about where the mayoral discussion stands with respect to combatting crime; there are still six weeks to go before the April 2 primary, and many voters aren’t tuned in. But they will be soon.

Until then, and until more of the candidates have stepped forward with specific policy proposals for reducing the blight of crime on this region, Garrett says this is as good a time as any to encourage the grass-roots involvement that can make a difference. And the business community must be part of that, he says. What will make a difference? “Engagement across the spectrum—people inside these communities
of violence, particularly those struck by violence. That’s the key,” Garrett says. “The idea is, what can
we collaborate on? We’re looking at opportunities for leaders to be engaged, either with the crime
commission or the police foundation,” he said.

Solutions to the challenge here cannot be laid at the feet of the police alone, he said. “It’s a combination of things—officers on the street, technology, new methods, community efforts,” he said. “There are a lot of forces that have to be brought to bear on a situation that’s as dynamic as this one. There is no one cause for violence, and no one cure. As a police department, we are focused on ‘What can we do tonight? What techniques, what resources can we apply tonight to make it less likely for another homicide or violent crime?”

New officers budgeted for the next cycle will help. “But if you look at the crime numbers relative to 20 years ago, we’re not making a lot of ground.” Garrett said. “ We’re losing the race on crime; it’s outpacing our policing power. And the idea that we’re going to outman the crime problem, that’s a mistake.”