A DOJ partnership is hoping to change how Kansas City handles violence prevention
A Kansas City, Missouri, police officer stands in front of the East Patrol Division Station. The East Patrol has responded to the most homicides in the past five years (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon).
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon.
Several years after the embattled violence-reduction program known as KC No Violence Alliance faded from public view, Mayor Quinton Lucas’ administration is working with federal authorities and community partners to revive and broaden the strategies that for a time seemed to be making a difference in Kansas City, Missouri.
The new program, dubbed the Community Safety Partnership, is being rolled out as Kansas City continues to struggle with violent crime. After a record 176 homicides in 2020, the city has seen 117 this year as of Oct. 5. Kansas City has consistently ranked in the top 10 when it comes to murder rates in U.S. cities, and it had the sixth highest rate per capita in 2020.
The Community Safety Partnership is built around four pillars: prevention, intervention, enforcement and trust building. Officials hope it will act as a positive force for years to come, but questions about funding and the anticipated departure of federal partners in the coming year mean its future is murky.
Local and national effort
The Community Safety Partnership has its roots in a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Kansas City Police Department that started in 2018. Kansas City is one of several dozen cities taking part in the DOJ’s public safety partnership program.
“We attended a symposium in Birmingham, Alabama, where we learned about other sites and their PSP experience,” said Sgt. Jacob Becchina at KCPD. The symposium included a strategic planning session on forming partnerships “to improve our approach and response to violence,” he said.
The list of involved parties is long. Representatives from KCPD; the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office; Missouri Division of Probation and Parole; the U.S. attorney’s office; FBI; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals Service all come together in biweekly meetings.
The public safety partnership “has actually been very helpful,” said Michael Mansur, communications director with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. “I mean, frankly, the only time we sit down together on violence, kind of bigger picture kind of discussions, is because of PSP.”
In early 2020, the partnership invited community groups to join in a planning process. Those discussions resulted in a 48-page blueprint, which became the framework of Lucas’ Community Safety Partnership.
The Community Safety Partnership board is larger than KC NoVA’s was, and that’s intentional. Organizers want to ensure that a single person can’t sink the program by pulling out, which is what happened after Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith retracted the department’s support for KC NoVA.
“It speaks to the fact that you always have to have collaboration,” Lucas said. “It doesn’t stop with a mayoral term, or a police chief’s term.”
Among the new board members is Candance Wesson, who founded the women’s reentry program The Help KC. A member of the Center for Conflict Resolution also sits on the board, as does the Rev. Vernon Howard with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, a strong supporter of KC NoVA, has reprised her role as a board member, as has a KCPD liaison.
The board’s meetings are publicly broadcast on the city’s YouTube channel, a distinct shift from the secrecy of KC NoVA meetings. Members of the public can attend board meetings, and meeting minutes are public record.
When the 48-page strategic plan was initially released, it focused on three pillars: prevention, intervention and enforcement. The fourth, trust building, was added later, but board members say it should guide every step of the program.
“I think if we just keep those four pillars in mind, the really hard work surrounding the implementation of the strategic plan will be a lot simpler,” said Mary O’Connor, who works with cities partnering with the DOJ to put violence reduction strategies in place.
Branding, rollout complications
The revised program was initially announced a year ago under the name Reform KC. Organizers realized the name didn’t accurately reflect all the program was designed to do and changed it to the Community Safety Partnership.
The pandemic got in the way of the rollout and forced several planned town halls online. Grand plans for action steps had to be shelved as everyone worked from home, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the program’s effectiveness in 2020.
The DOJ’s public safety partnership is only supposed to provide assistance for three years in each city. Kansas City was granted a one-year extension because of the pandemic.
O’Connor, who served for more than 20 years with the Tampa Police Department, will guide the partnership on behalf of the DOJ for the remaining year. She said the Community Safety Partnership identified several key areas to focus on, including enhanced community engagement and streamlining victim-witness support services.
“The commitment to providing referrals to victims and witnesses in the city is outstanding,” she said. “And I think any work that you guys can do in this area to continue this effort is going to be great for the victims in Kansas City, which is really what it’s all about.”
Funding for a vital part of the program is guaranteed for the next year. After that, things are unclear.
KCPD and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office agreed to use funds from the Jackson County Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax, better known as COMBAT, to retain client advocates, who provide social services to individuals considered likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence. The advocates are the last holdovers from KC NoVA and have quietly continued their work after police pulled out of the program.
The funds from COMBAT total $78,268 and provide a buffer until the advocates can find more funding sources, said Darren Faulkner, the team’s leader.
In a late September interview, Lucas said an earlier decision by the Kansas City Council to reallocate one-fifth of the police budget toward a new “community services and prevention fund” could provide some support for the Community Safety Partnership’s priorities. That decision is now in limbo, however, after a Jackson County judge ruled that the reallocation was illegal. The city is considering appealing the ruling.
The city has also applied for a federal grant and is continuing to pursue private funding options through community donors. The Community Safety Partnership approved moving the client advocates under the Kansas City Health Department’s umbrella to make it easier to obtain money to pay the advocates.
“The NoVA initiative, its new branding, everyone on that board has a day job, except for social services,” Faulkner said. “We are the only ones that actually work for the partnership. If we go away, then a big part of this new strategy is gone.”
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