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Why did Kansas City's murder rate fall while St. Louis' rose? STL delegation seeks answers

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce speaks with reporters about how her office will seek warrants for drivers who refuse breath tests.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | File photo
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St. Louis American - KANSAS CITY – “Last year in the city of St. Louis we had 159 homicides, 138 through gun violence, and more than 90 percent of the victims were young, African-American males,” St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer M. Joyce, the city’s elected prosecutor, said Monday at Kansas City Police Department headquarters. “We cannot have that again.”

That “never again” determination explains why Joyce led a delegation of law enforcement officials from St. Louis to Kansas City, which marked a 50-year low in homicides in 2014.

Joyce, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan from Missouri’s Eastern District, St. Louis Public Safety Director Richard Gray, St. Louis Police Captain Michael Sack, St. Louis City Counselor Winston Calvert and other officials on Monday attended meeting Monday of the Governing Board meeting of the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.

Joyce, who has been traveling nationally in recent months to study effective homicide deterrence models, hopes to implement some of their collaborative efforts that are credited with reducing Kansas City’s homicide rate.

Like that of St. Louis, the homicide rate in Kansas City is roughly five times the national average. And  these cities are more dangerous for young black males than Iraq and Afghanistan are for American soldiers, according to Ken Novak, a professor of criminology at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Novak and his colleague Andrew M. Fox are both “embedded criminologists” working directly with Joyce’s counterpart in Kansas City, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Peters Baker, who opened the session Monday morning, said she instituted NoVA in 2011 in partnership with then-newly elected Kansas City Mayor Sly James, Police Chief Darryl Forte and Beth Phillips, then-U.S. attorney for Western Missouri and now a federal judge.

Critical to the success of  NoVA is the collaboration between law enforcement agencies to prevent violent crimes, rather than prosecute them — and the active involvement of criminologists to help prevent crimes, rather than merely study them after the damage is done.

The coalition also includes clergy, who host focused public meetings where law enforcement officials directly address the individuals in the community they have identified as most likely to commit the next violent crime. At these meetings, the targeted individuals are directly offered social services — social workers are included in the NoVA partnership. They are also warned that the next homicide in the city will meet with instant and focused enforcement activity from every angle.

Peters Baker said the most dangerous groups on the streets today are not affiliated members of large organized gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, which can be targeted under federal organized crime statutes.

“But these are groups of people who, when they get together, commit violence,” Peters Baker said. “Who cares what their name is – ‘gang,’ ‘group.’ We were still looking for grand, structured organizations that we can take down, but it doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Now street criminals are organized in smaller, looser affiliations that move rapidly from allies to enemies, Peters Baker said – and the switch to enemy status is often met with violence, which in turn provokes retaliatory violence.

These groups are identified and studied using social network analysis, as Andrew M. Fox, an embedded criminologist from UMKC, explained to the St. Louis delegation on Monday. It is the same technology used in recent years to study the transmission of infectious diseases and the connections between international terrorist networks.

“Homicide spreads a lot like disease spreads,” Fox said. “We know that [somdone] who is likely to be shot next is socially connected to people who have already been shot.”

Novak pointed to data that 0.5 percent of the population in Cincinnati — half of 1 percent — was responsible for nearly 75 percent of the city’s homicides, 2006-2007.

To perform social network analysis, Fox recommended a free software called “Pajek,” the Slovene word for “spider.”  Indeed, once mapped, gang affiliations often look like a large, loose and deadly spider web.

The critical tactic for this analytic tool, Fox explained, is to identify the nodes in the network, the individuals who are associated with the largest number of other individuals or responsible for connecting the most clusters of other individuals. Those are the high-risk individuals targeted by NoVA and offered social services if they want to put down the gun — and threatened with focused reprisals if they go back to violence.

Those focused reprisals, Peters Baker said, include everything the coalition of law enforcement agencies can throw at the members of a group that commits violence. What matters most is that law enforcement officials deliver on their promise of punishment.

“Everyone has different levers they can pull,” Novak said. “The probation and parole office has levers that the police don’t have. This can’t simply be a police thing.”

Another radical change here is switching law enforcement focus from high-risk individuals to individuals involved in the most high-risk relationships, because reaching those people has the most impact on other people in the gang or group.

Fox said this type of data analysis is succeeding in police work because “it’s what law enforcement officials do on a daily basis,” but it employs statistical models that enable them to analyze more data than is possible by the human mind (or by understaffed police departments and prosecutor offices).

After the data is crunched, human beings still need to work together — and collaborate across agencies that often have long-standing patterns of distrust and suspicion. Peters Baker was candid in stressing that the communication between police, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, and social workers in NoVA has broken down repeatedly and remains a work in progress.

“We have to step out of our comfort zones and do our jobs as we have never done before,” Peters Baker said. “We have to stop pointing fingers. The partnership has to be strong to withstand the scrutiny.”

It’s this type of innovative partnership that Joyce now hopes to assemble in St. Louis. “If Kansas City can do it, St. Louis can do it,” Joyce said on Monday. “And I plan to be in a leadership role of doing it.”

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