KANSAS CITY — Despite decades of initiatives to stem violent crime, Kansas City residents continue killing each other at a rate five times higher than the national average, prompting officials in this Missouri city best known for barbecue and jazz to turn to an alternative law enforcement approach that offers incentives to convicted and would-be criminals to change their ways.
Zero-tolerance policies haven't worked, police say, and there's little evidence that public awareness rituals or anti-violence coalitions have had any impact on an annual murder count that has been below 100 only nine times in the last 44 years.
But city leaders think their newest assault on violent crime — patterned after a "focused deterrence" model created in Boston in the mid-1990s and refined over the years by cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Los Angeles — might finally change things.
"It's the first time I've felt this kind of energy when doing something like this," said Darryl Forte, Kansas City's first black police chief and a lifelong resident of the city. "I'm confident this will have an impact."
Kansas City's effort, dubbed the "No Violence Alliance," or NoVA, was created more than a year ago, soon after Forte's promotion to chief. The U.S. attorney's office, county prosecutor and law enforcement authorities are on board, as are the University of Missouri-Kansas City and various social services agencies.
Focused deterrence is a carrot-and-stick approach in which members of a criminal network — even those on the fringes who haven't yet committed serious crimes — are identified and sought out by police who want them to know their actions can have unintended consequences for others in their cliques.
Sometime soon, about 80 criminals on probation or parole will be brought together in groups of 20 to meet with prosecutors and law enforcement agents who will explain the ramifications of the new program.
Those who want to pull away from criminal affiliations will be offered social services to help them do so. Prosecutors will be sending a strong message to the others that authorities know who they are, what they've done, and that they will be held accountable if anyone in their network commits a violent crime.
"For those on the bubble, a lot of them want to do what's right," Forte said.
The focused deterrence approach has been successful in other cities, according to a study released early last year. Researchers with the Campbell Collaboration, an international research network, reported that nine of 10 Ceasefire-like programs they studied experienced "strong and statistically significant crime reductions associated with the approach."
A U.S. Justice Department evaluation of Boston's Ceasefire program found a "63 percent reduction in the monthly count of youth homicides, a 25 percent reduction in the monthly count of citywide gun assault incidents, a 32 percent reduction in the monthly count of citywide shots-fired calls for service, and a 44 percent reduction in the monthly count of youth gun assaults in selected high-risk districts."
David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who helped develop Boston's program, said interest in focused deterrence has risen sharply in recent years in cities that have found typical arrest-and-detain approaches aren't working.
"It wasn't that long ago when you couldn't get anyone to take this stuff seriously at all," he said.
NoVA flexed its muscles in January when Kansas City police focused on a network of about 360 people, including homicide suspects, known drug dealers, prostitutes and juveniles, all linked to each other through a computer model created by Andrew Fox, an assistant criminal justice professor at UMKC.
Using information officers obtained from people on the streets, during traffic stops, at crime scenes or during what police call "knock and talks" in which an officer makes a cold call to a person's home solely to make contact, Fox is connecting the dots between hard-core criminals, those who associate with them, and even those who associate with the associates.
Using that data, NoVA manager Capt. Joe McHale said officers knocked on about 100 doors over a day-and-a-half, with priority given to those with outstanding warrants. Many of the contacts were made simply to let suspected criminals know they're being watched, he said.
"The whole purpose of that demonstration was to show what our capabilities are," said McHale, a former Police Department SWAT team leader.
The effort resulted in the arrests of 17 people, including suspects in at least two homicides, and cleared 49 outstanding warrants.
Last year, 108 people were victims of homicide in Kansas City, six fewer than the 114 murdered in 2011, when the city's homicide rate of 23 per 100,000 residents was nearly five times higher than the national rate of 4.7 per 100,000.
As of March 20, there were 21 homicides in the city this year, three less than at this time a year ago.
Pat Clarke, an outreach liaison for the police department, said it's critical that NoVA's message is communicated by people who have suffered through the same problems plaguing other inner-city residents.
A frequent speaker at Kansas City schools, Clarke said his own experiences selling drugs and committing other crimes as a young man decades ago — in addition to his stories about being raised by an abusively strict mother and a father who was rarely around — give him credibility with young people who are going through the same things.
"When they finish school, there ain't no dinner," he said. "That's why a lot of kids are out selling drugs. They are trying to take care of the other four, other five kids. A lot of them are out there because they feel like they have to be. I know because I've been there."
He said many young offenders will benefit from the social services aspect of NoVA, while the program will have little impact on others.
"Some of these kids you're just not going to save," he said. "They've got it in their mind they're gonna commit murder, they're going to commit a crime, and that's that."