- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - It was a tale of two cities, Missouri edition: While homicides in St. Louis rose dramatically in 2014, killings in Kansas City reached the lowest level in nearly half a century, a turnaround so startling that St. Louis leaders looked to their western counterparts for advice.

But Kansas City killings have risen dramatically since mid-summer. Both of Missouri’s big cities topped 2014 homicide totals by mid-October - evidence, experts say, of the uphill battle to make urban streets safe.

Kansas City Police Capt. Joel Lovelady said he believes a three-year effort to focus on the city’s most violent criminals is still working, despite the uptick. Still, he said, “It is concerning when you see the numbers go up.”

In 2012, Kansas City launched an anti-violence effort dubbed the “No Violence Alliance,” or NoVA. The collaboration of police, prosecutors, academics and other community leaders used a “focused deterrence” model that has been successful in other cities. The payoff came quickly. Homicides fell from 106 in 2012 to 100 in 2013 to just 81 last year.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, things were getting worse. St. Louis saw 113 homicides in 2012, 120 in 2013, then 159 last year. Already in 2015, St. Louis has seen 164 killings.

Earlier this year, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce led a contingent of 30 law enforcement officials to learn about what made NoVA successful.

But Kansas City has seen a surge in killings in recent months and is now on pace for around 100 this year. It’s a disturbing trend seen in many other urban areas around the country, said Jim Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham School of Law.

Cohen said the availability of illegal guns is a factor in the surge in killings. Mistrust of police and crime witnesses who refuse to cooperate make solving the crimes difficult. “They don’t want to be targeted” for retribution, Cohen said.

Lovelady said confidence in NoVA remains high.

“I would not want to see what the numbers would look like if we weren’t out focusing on the groups that are engaged in violence and driving violence,” he said.

Joyce also stands by the Kansas City model.

“The research bears out … that where it’s been implemented properly, it does have an effect,” Joyce said. “So we’re going forward with that in St. Louis.”

In addition to Kansas City, focused deterrence efforts have been successful elsewhere. A Boston program began in the 1990s was credited with a decline in violent crime. New Orleans began a focused deterrence effort in 2012, and it saw a 22 percent drop in homicides over a two-year period, from 199 in 2011 to 156 in 2013. The city’s homicides fell another 4 percent last year.

Kansas City’s NoVA uses a computer model to identify members of a criminal network. “We looked at the very small percentage of people who were causing the majority of violence in the city,” Lovelady said.

Social service workers join uniformed officers in either going to those individuals or calling them to the station. They are warned to behave but also provided with information about employment, addiction assistance and other self-help programs.

The program even extends to prisons. Police receive a 90-day notice before release of an inmate incarcerated for a violent crime. When he gets out, detectives are waiting to speak to him.

“We tell them, ‘You are on the radar. We’re paying attention. But if you want to change your lifestyle and not engage in violence, there is a way out,’” Lovelady said.

In St. Louis, a crime-fighting partnership called Mission SAVE, an acronym for “Strike Against Violence Early,” has adopted some of the Kansas City ideas. As part of that partnership, dozens of officers from St. Louis city and county, along with agents from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, work together with a focus on violent offenders and drug traffickers.

Some big changes have already been made. Joyce said an assistant prosecutor is now dispatched to every homicide in the city, gathering information along with police.

“We’ve made stronger relationships with witnesses and we’ve actually charged some cases that we probably wouldn’t have charged if we weren’t out there to see how it happened,” she said.

Federal prosecutors have taken a more active role, with nearly a dozen indictments for violent crimes, including murder and drug trafficking, since the middle of the year.

“This is a very stepped-up effort,” U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said.

Yet, the city is on pace for around 190 killings, which would be the most in 20 years.

Joyce said there are some issues law enforcement simply can’t fix. She said the community needs to find ways to mentor young people, and help them find good jobs, if things are going to change.

Callahan agreed.

“You’re talking about housing, poverty, education, economic integration in our neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s in those areas you’ll see the solution to the crime problem, not what we do in law enforcement.”

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