By Luke Nozicka, Kansas City Star
Kansas City, Kansas, has suffered the fewest homicides in the last decade so far this year as just about every other category of violent crime has also declined. Detectives have investigated 19 killings as of this week, compared to 31 by this time last year, according to police data. That’s fewer than half as many by this time in 2020 and 2021, which saw 46 and 40 in mid-October of those years, respectively.
Despite the drop so far this year in violent crime, public safety is a top issue for voters ahead of the Nov. 7 local elections, and candidates have plans for how to keep violence down. Residents will reshape the Unified Government’s Board of Commissioners, the county’s governing body, casting ballots for five seats for the 11-member board. Voters will likely also be thinking about rising taxes and utility bills.
At-Large District 1 Commissioner Melissa Bynum described the decline in homicides as “dramatic” and praised Police Chief Karl Oakman, who took office in 2021. Still, she said, it would great if KCK could become a community with no murder.
Bynum, who is seeking reelection, was among a majority of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, commission candidates who vowed at a forum this week to support solutions expected to come from a data-driven analysis on KCK shootings and killings being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“It’s going to be another tool in the toolbox,” Bynum, who is running against challenger Ricky Smith, said at the candidate forum put on by Churches United for Justice, a coalition of 17 churches in Wyandotte County.
The seven candidates who appeared at the forum said they support anything proven to reduce violence, including a strategy known as group violence intervention. Pastor Bruce Draper, who asked them questions, called it the “best program we know of.”
“Enough is enough,” Draper said. “(Group violence intervention) works, and we need it here in KCK.”
The strategy, which was pioneered by a criminal justice professor at John Jay, has been credited with successes like a 63% reduction in youth homicides in Boston.
Tina Medina, who is running against Commissioner Christian Ramirez in the District 3 race, said she liked that the strategy included providing social services, noting there is a “movement” now to look at holistic approaches to crime and young people.
The National Network for Safe Communities, the college’s research center, is analyzing KCK’s 2022 and 2023 data on homicides and non-fatal shootings, which amount to about 200 cases. Their analysts will soon travel to KCK to interview people like officers, detectives and members of the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office, Police Capt. Kevin Fithian said.
Churches United for Justice made the analysis the focus of one of three questions posed to candidates. Its leaders pointed to two of the “heartbreaking” homicides this year, including that of 6-year-old Sir’Antonio Brown, a kindergartner who in May was playing in his front yard with his sister and cousins when he was fatally shot during a drive-by shooting. Two suspects have been charged.
At the forum Tuesday, candidates highly commended Oakman, whose department this year has also solved four cold case murders through a newly formed unit.
Anna Cole, who is running against Bill Burns for the District 2 seat, described Oakman as reforming the force.
“I feel in such an awful environment we’ve had in that particular entity that I’ve read about … it was an open secret,” Cole said. “And I think we are really approaching a change.”
Activists have long called for a federal investigation into KCKPD over allegations of civil rights violations. Those include accusations against former detective Roger Golubski, who retired in 2010 after decades on the force and now faces two federal indictments for crimes such as conspiring to sex traffic underage girls in the 1990s with a drug kingpin and two other men.
Tarence Maddox, who is running against Evelyn Hill in an attempt to regain the District 4 seat he held a decade ago, noted that up until June, every killing this year was solved by KCK detectives. That, he believed, was “something this community has never seen.”
A majority of homicide cases so far this year have been cleared, a police spokesperson said.
Data provided by the police department also shows that reported rapes and aggravated batteries have seen significant decreases this year. That includes a 46% drop in aggravated batteries, from 391 by this time last year to 211 so far this year.
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