Under the Gun: Has Kansas City Found a Cure?

Treating violence like an epidemic has improved the prognosis there.

0215_COVERHistorically, Kansas City has been one of the 10 most-violent cities in the United States, averaging more than 100 homicides annually in recent years—with a population roughly half that of Indianapolis. But in 2014, K.C. was headed for its lowest homicide rate in five decades. By mid-year, the city had seen 34 homicides, a 31 percent drop compared to the halfway point of 2013.

How did they do it? In 2013, the Kansas City Police Department partnered with area prosecutors, the mayor’s office, U.S. attorneys, and other community leaders to rethink crime. “We were fighting the war on drugs, instead of fighting the war on violence,” says Major Joe McHale, commander for Kansas City PD’s Violent Crimes Enforcement Division. According to McHale, a new data-driven deterrence program called NoVA—short for “No Violence Alliance”—borrows a technique from the epidemiology employed by public-health experts: social-network analysis. Here’s how K.C. put theory into practice:

1. Identify violent offenders (and the groups they operate in): KCPD uses criminal and social data for 900 (and counting) residents at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators—those with active warrants, for example—and then studies their relationships to one another by plotting them on a “sociogram.”

2. Meet with those criminals: KCPD officials or other community leaders invite offenders in for meetings and offer carrot-or-stick deals. Carrots—such as connecting would-be and current offenders to social services—come if offenders avoid violence.

3. The sticks? If offenders choose violence after officials have reached out, swift punishment awaits. In December, KCPD arrested 54 socially connected offenders in a single coordinated raid.
0215_COVER-cropIndianapolis is coming off one of its deadliest years ever. Under the Gun, from our February 2015 issue, offers a grim look at the violence killing our city.