A look at Kansas City’s progress on gun crime

Efforts in the city’s Northeast region saw zero homicides in 2018, thanks in part to KCNoVA’s presence and outreach in the area.

A look at the No Violence Alliance and gun crime in Kansas City today

By Samuel Ast

Roughly five years after the implementation of an initiative designed to address Kansas City’s gun-related violent crime as well as the city’s steep homicide rate, a key partner in Kansas City’s No Violence Alliance, or KCNoVA, spoke to me about the progress the city has made and the challenges we continue to face.

Serving as a research partner for KCNoVA– a collaborative effort between academics, politicians, law enforcement and activists–since 2012, UMKC Criminal Justice Professor Ken Novak has been on the frontlines of a battle that has seen both progress and setbacks.

The initiative was a response to Missouri’s homicide rate–ranked 9th highest nationally, at the time– with St. Louis and Kansas City among the cities driving this trend within the state. KCNoVA seeks to provide violent offenders with alternatives to violence through direct outreach, accessible social support services, along with swift legal punishment if all else fails. Essentially, KCNoVA would like to see individuals resolve conflicts in healthy ways that do not involve pulling the trigger.

Focused Deterrence

One of the primary ways for the No Violence Alliance to do this is by embracing a strategy known as focused deterrence. Focussed deterrence is a coordinated policing method used to reduce violent crime by concentrating most of the energy, the attention, and the resources of the public safety realm in a specific community on homicides and aggravated assaults committed by repeat violent offenders. These offenders are often members of groups or social networks (gangs) operating in areas saturated with high levels of violent crime.

UMKC Criminal Justice Professor Ken Novak

Looking back on an August 2015 report co-authored by Novak, evidence of the success and impact of KCNoVA, and focused deterrence writ large, can be found. In the report, Novak states that in 2014, once the initiative had become fully operational, the average number of monthly homicides had decreased by 26.5 percent.

More recently, efforts in the city’s Northeast region saw zero homicides in 2018, thanks in part to KCNoVA’s presence and outreach in the area.

Vince Ortega, the executive director of COMBAT, Jackson County’s anti-drug sales tax program, says that he believes these reductions were due also to the increased coordination by those invested and interested in violence reduction. “It’s multiple agencies providing multiple services in a more coordinated fashion,” Ortega told KCUR last year.

However, in recent years–specifically in 2017– the city’s homicide rate has hit highs not seen in the area since the crack epidemic of the 90s.  Although the data from the 2015 report was significant enough to show that the new interagency, community-based approach was making an impact, the report also detailed concerns about the long term effectiveness of a focused deterrence strategy in Kansas City.

“The decay effect is something we see in criminal justice when some intervention or treatment begins to lose its impact,” Novak explained, looking back on the study. Novak posits that one cause of this trend could be that motivated offenders–those in the environments where both violence and enforcement are most concentrated– may “no longer view the threat of punishment as credible, or are adapting to the intervention.”

This decay effect is something to pay attention to going forward, says Novak. Given that levels of gun violence in Kansas City remain high, with a total of 128 gunshot fatalities in 2018 alone, Novak stressed the need for a continual reassessment of strategies in order to continually address new threats and dilemmas.

“A good path moving forward for coalition partners is to rely on evidence-based practices that have been demonstrated to impact violence elsewhere. Focused deterrence is one of those practices, but not the only practice,” says Novak. He goes on to say that crime prevention strategies need to evolve because the world around us is always evolving.

“There are no silver bullets-no one strategy is the answer.”

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