KANSAS CITY -- Less than 24 hours after a man was killed and a person taken into custody in a shooting at a Kansas City home, police on Friday identified the victim as a 50-year old John M. Buckley.
The record for the city was set in 2020 with 182 killings, rocketing past the previous record of 155 homicides reported in 2017, according to data tracked by The Star, which includes fatal police shootings. Since then, homicide numbers have been among the worst the city has seen. In 2021, 157 lives were lost in homicides. There were 171 killings in 2022.
In mid-November, 2023 gained the notorious distinction of becoming the city’s second deadliest year. As of Friday, 176 people have been killed in homicides, according to the data tracked by The Star.
With just over four weeks remaining until the end of the year, Kansas City faces the grim reality that this year could be its deadliest ever, as an ever-growing number of arguments, domestic disputes and acts of retaliation end in deadly violence. The single highest cause of homicides this year — arguments. The single biggest deadly weapon — guns.
And despite some glimmers of hope for solutions down the road in the form of new community partnerships and collaboration to help stop the violence and support victims, the unyielding violence that’s become part of everyday life in Kansas City is sobering.
‘One homicide is too many’
The number of homicides and non-fatal shootings is indeed very concerning, Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves said in a statement.
“One homicide is too many,” she said. “It’s something everyone in Kansas City should care about!”
The police department continues to work with its strategic partners on the issue, she said in the statement. The police department is confident in the investment and efforts it is employing to reduce violence, along with Partners for Peace, KC 360, state and federal partners, probation and parole and other community partners.
“Reducing violent crime is among the highest priorities for our department, to make Kansas City as safe as it possibly can be,” Graves said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said he’s also not happy with the city’s number of homicides. He recognizes that with each life lost, there’s a grieving person or family left behind.
“While there may be some who try to leverage these number for any number of different reasons, my heat breaks for all of the victims in Kansas City and I continue to believe that we can and should be a safer city,” Lucas said.
Every live lost is a tragedy, Lucas said, but he wants to focus now on how the city can prevent more tragedy. This week, the City Council passed an ordinance accepting a U.S. Department of Justice grant that will allow the city to work on “focused deterrence” more, which was a big part of the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVA.
“I’m heartened that we’re seeing efforts like those renewed,” Lucas said.
That program captured national attention after killings dropped to a historic low of 86 in 2014 by targeting violent people and their associates. They received help finding jobs, getting an education and other assistance. When KCPD Chief Rick Smith took over in 2017, he killed the program.
Work also continues through the new program called Partners for Peace, a collaboration between the city, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Kansas City Police that brings together local agencies and nonprofits to administer resources and assistance to families after a loved one is wounded or killed in a shooting.
This past week, Lucas joined other members of Partners in Peace to canvass the Independence Avenue neighborhood to reach out to those who might be at risk of retaliation, as as well as to make proactive code enforcement efforts with businesses to address criminal activity.
It’s an effort to stop crime before it starts and address mistakes from the past, as in the case of the auto business at 57th Street and Prospect Avenue that was operating an “after hours” nightclub, but wasn’t shut down by the city until after a shooting in late June left three people dead and six others wounded.
Lucas said there were dozens of calls to the Kansas City Police Department, but he said he thinks “it’s fair to say that they didn’t’ get shut down until it was too late.”
‘Going to get worse’
It doesn’t surprise Rosilyn Temple, founder and program director of KC Mothers in Charge, that Kansas City finds itself once again on the verge of breaking its record for the number of homicides in a year.
“I knew we were going to get here this year,” said Temple, who founded the local chapter in 2014 after her son, Antonio “PeeWee” Thompson, was killed Nov. 23, 2011. “And I know it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
For 10 years, she has been going to homicide scenes and working in the community, so she has seen the pace that the city was on this year. Part of the problem, she said, has been young kids carrying guns who don’t know how to deal with conflict. People need to realize this is a community problem and stand up and say that they have had enough, she said. Otherwise, she fears, nothing will change.
“You shouldn’t have to come to a place where you lose a child like I have to make a stand for something,” Temple said. “We got to do something now.”
In this year’s homicides, firearms were used 160 times as the means of attack, according to the Kansas City Police Department’s daily homicide analysis.
About a third of the victims were under the age of 25, including 18 victims, or 10%, that were 17 years old or younger.
Arguments were the leading contributing factor in this year’s homicides, involving the killing of 65 victims. There were also 21 killings where domestic violence was a prevailing factor. Retaliation accounted for 17 deaths, according to the police department’s analysis.
One of the more concerning issues that Lucas has noticed is the anger that is being seen among families, and the youths they are seeing as both victims and assailants. Lucas said he sat through a funeral of a murdered teen last weekend.
“You’re seeing teenagers getting access to guns easily on the streets of Kansas City,” he said. “I think that that creates a deadly cocktail in connection with that fact that it’s been made apparent over the past that easy, readily available access to firearms for those who don’t need them often leads to these types of very challenging outcomes.”
What’s going on in Kansas City is more than just an epidemic of violence, which the city has been suffering through for some time, said Damon Daniel, president of the AdHoc Group Against Crime.
“We’re at the point where this has really become a moral crisis,” Daniel said. “I say that because America continues to romanticize and love their guns.”
Not enough is being done to protect the children and the community in general with common sense gun legislation, he said. Not enough is being done to make sure that social service agencies as well as schools have what is needed to provide quality education and services.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “When we think about where real investment needs to go, it needs to go where there is none or there’s very little.”
If communities allow only some parts of the city to thrive while other parts suffer, they will continue to see violence, he said.
Public health emergency
With the number of homicides in Kansas City alarmingly high, and with the city nearing the point of breaking its record, it underscores the fact that gun violence is a public health emergency and it needs to be seen that way, said Matthew Huffman, chief public affairs officer for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“I consider gun violence to be a public health emergency because whenever we look at the rate at which it is happening, it just continues to rise,” Huffman said. “But we also know that gun violence is preventable and if we treat it like a public health emergency, it means that we can take the necessary steps in order to prevent it, because we know that it can be prevented.”
There are many folks who have considered gun violence to be a public health issue for a long time, he said.
At the same time, there are those who see gun ownership as solely a Second Amendment rights issue, which puts the issue of gun violence back to the individual rather than a community-wide public health issue.
“I think there can be space for those not to be looked at as separate issues, but combined,” Huffman said. “You can have responsible gun ownership while also recognizing that gun violence and homicides as a result of gun violence are indeed a public health issue.”
For decades, government leaders in Missouri and elsewhere have seen gun violence as a crime problem to be solved with law enforcement.
Instead, experts say gun violence should be looked at a public health problem to be solved by improving underlying life conditions that put people at greater or lesser risk, such as income, housing and food security and schools, as well as structural racism, another risk factor, that puts Black residents at a disadvantage in those categories.
There are no easy, short term solutions to Kansas City’s homicide problem, said Huffman, who attributed the homicide rates to Missouri’s lack of strong gun laws, he said.
Narrowing the focus specifically to domestic violence homicides, Huffman said that if Missouri statutes mirrored federal laws that prevent a domestic violence offender with an order of protection against them from having access to a firearm, deaths could be prevented.
“Without those laws in Missouri and without local communities like the Greater Kansas City Area being able to implement and enforce laws like that, we will continue to see more people die as a result of gun deaths, including domestic violence homicides,” he said.
But the mayor sees it as a more complex problem.
There are a number of reasons Kansas City has such high violent crime numbers, Lucas said. They range from the number of officers to jail issues, as well the lack of investment in mental health. There is also incredible poverty and inequality in the city, he said.
“All of these things become very relevant, but I don’t think you’re being a serious person if you don’t look at the fact that the easy access to guns — the fact that you can talk to 12 and 13 year olds in Kansas City who know how to find firearms,” Lucas said. “I think that becomes a big part of our issue long term.”
Kansas City has great asset through its KC Blueprint for Violence Prevention and a Safe and Healthy Community that drew upon a variety of stakeholders across the city to develop a list of violence reduction strategies for the different sectors, Huffman said.
While Kansas City has for some time viewed violence as a public health problem, including placing the the Violence Free Kansas City Committee is under the umbrella of the city’s Health Commission, Daniel with the AdHoc Group Against Crime said he doesn’t think all of the city’s various sectors see it that way.
There’s a need to take a step back and define what a healthy community looks like and then go beyond just putting that definition on paper, he said.
“We want to be able to experience what a healthy city, what a healthy community, what a healthy neighborhood feels like and looks like,” Daniel said. “That should be the goal of our city, and our metro for that matter. It can’t just be one city. It does have to take a regional effort.”
One aspect Daniel feels people are overlooking is generational trauma that has been associated with violence. He said there are people in the community who have lost multiple family members to violence and who have survived violent acts and assaults. Finding ways to disrupt generational trauma will be an upcoming focus of AdHoc Group Against Crime, he said.
It’s important to also recognize that Kansas City’s homicide problem hasn’t happened overnight. It’s the result of decades of neglect of certain parts of the city that has been allowed to spread like a deadly disease, Daniel said.
“If one part of our body has an ailment and we ignore it, other parts of our body begin to break down,” he said. “That illness begins to get worse and it spreads to other organs and other parts of our body. Our functions begin to deteriorate. That is what has occurred in our city.”
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
But some people are starting to see signs of hope.
“Obviously we are in a very bad place in the sense of the number that you’re seeing as far as homicides and shootings,” said Vincent Ortega, executive director of Jackson County Combat. But at the same time, he said he sees “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
That spark of optimism stems from an ongoing collaboration among the police, social service agencies, prosecutors and concerned citizens who have been meeting for about eight months for the first time in many years, he said.
At those weekly meetings, they discuss the issues that are going on, the number of individuals who were shot and killed that week, suspect information and collaborate with different agencies and individuals, Ortega said.
“We’re doing things a lot differently,” he said. “You’re seeing a lot more collaboration. You’re seeing a lot more communication, and on a more comprehensive level, where all parties involved are working together to try to reduce violence.”
As its part, Combat set up a Midtown hub in July 2021 at the Greater Metropolitan Church of Christ at 37th Street and Wabash Avenue that refers shooting victims and families of homicide victims to social services programs to meet their physical needs as well as mental health needs to help them deal with the trauma and to intervene when the victim feels the need to retaliate.
On average, 15 to 20 individuals are shot each week in Kansas City with three or four of them ending up as homicides, Ortega said. What they found was that while police followed up on investigations, 70% or more of the victims were never contacted for social services to help meet their need.
So far this year, the hub has had 853 social service referrals, mostly of survivors of shootings or families members of homicide victims, he said.
Meanwhile, the KC 360 violence prevention strategy that mirrors one by a similar name in Omaha, Nebraska, is seeing mixed results in Kansas City’s Santa Fe neighborhood. Homicides are down, but nonfatal shootings remain steady. A more extensive effort to track the impacts won’t launch until next year.
The program is still in it’s early stages. In May 2022, then-interim Kansas City Police Chief Joseph Mabin announced the department had joined KC 360 and was conducting a pilot program in the Santa Fe Neighborhood.
Officials are hoping to replicate the similar successes as Omaha, which saw a 74% drop in shootings in 15 years in Omaha, officials said.
The nonprofit KC Common Good is spearheading the KC 360 effort to reduce violent crime and increase access to opportunities. The nonprofit was founded in 2018 to address root causes of violence. The board is made up of faith, business and community leaders, including the mayor.
Next year, Kansas City police also will be taking a focused deterrence approach to an overall violence reduction program that uses enforcement, intelligence-led policing and community engagement, said Capt. Corey Carlisle, a spokesperson for the police department, in an email.
“Many of these efforts are being are being utilized today but a more comprehensive phase will be adopted in the beginning of the new year which will include more community partners and resources to help increase long-term crime reduction results as it relates to violent crime,” he said.