Homicides spike in Kansas City; on possible record pace
St. Louis has for years suffered the unwanted distinction of having one of the nation’s highest homicide rates, but it’s Missouri’s other big city that is on pace for perhaps the deadliest year on record.
Kansas City police report 68 homicides so far this year, compared to 56 in the same period a year ago. The city ended 2019 with 150 homicides, three short of the 1993 record. This year, Kansas City is on pace to top the record, and that doesn’t account for the fact that summer months are typically the most deadly.
Neither police nor experts believe the rash of killings -- the vast majority involving guns -- is connected to the coronavirus pandemic. Nationally, most cities are on about the same pace as last year -- St. Louis among them -- or seeing a slight decline.
Non-lethal shootings also are on the rise. Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith said in a blog post earlier this month that 204 victims had been shot but survived in 2020, compared to 160 at the same time in 2019.
Police spokesman Jacob Becchina said that just as in past years, most homicides are caused by an argument or a drug dispute. And, just as in past years, solving the crimes is made difficult by a lack of cooperation from witnesses, many of whom mistrust the criminal justice system and simultaneously fear retaliation.
The demographics also remain the same: Most victims as well as most suspects are young black men.
Ken Novak, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offered this perspective: Kansas City’s per capita homicide rate last year was about 30 deaths per 100,000 residents. For black men in their early 20s, the fatality rate was about 450 per 100,000.
“That’s more dangerous than being a soldier in a war zone,” Novak said, noting that the death rate among soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was about 317 per 100,000.
“It’s sobering,” Novak said.
Kansas City gained national acclaim in 2014, when a program called the No Violence Alliance was credited with a big decrease in homicides. The city saw just 86 killings that year, the fewest in four decades. The program featured a “focused deterrence” model that involved officers going directly to people with violent histories and telling them to change their ways, while also offering help with finding a job and getting job training or an education.
Just as quickly as it worked, it didn’t. Homicide totals gradually rose to 151 in 2018 and 150 last year, when the No Violence Alliance was dropped.
Three of the nation’s 12 worst homicide rates involve Missouri cities -- No. 1 St. Louis, No. 5 Kansas City and No. 12 Springfield. Both Novak and Becchina cited the state's lenient gun laws as a possible contributing factor.
“It really puts law enforcement behind the eight ball,” Novak said. “That has to be part of the conversation in my opinion.”
Just 35 of the 67 Kansas City homicides have been solved this year even though, in many cases, officers are on the scene within minutes. Becchina said victims and witnesses too often simply refuse to cooperate.
Smith, in his blog, noted that 10 people were shot but survived from May 11 to May 17. Eight of those victims refused to cooperate or press charges. Overall, he said, about two-thirds of shooting victims are uncooperative.
Novak said the lack of cooperation, though frustrating for police, is understandable because victims and witnesses worry not only about retaliation against them, but against their families. Many victims and witnesses also are simply unwilling to work with police after decades of mistrust.
“When people are cynical toward the criminal justice system, they are far less likely to cooperate as a witness,” Novak said.