Two biggest cities in Mo. battle high, mostly unpunished homicide rates

Police leaders say witnesses are simply too scared to cooperate. In Kansas City, 70% of people who survive being shot refuse to name their assailant

By Jim Salter

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's two biggest cities saw a jump in homicides in 2019, and if that wasn't bad enough, an alarming number of killers got away with it.

St. Louis and Kansas City have among the highest homicide rates in the U.S. St. Louis had 194 killings last year, which was eight more than in 2018. Kansas City's homicide total rose by 10, to 148. Early signs for 2020 were troubling, especially in St. Louis, which saw seven killings in the first two days of the new year.

In both places, most of the killers haven't been caught. Kansas City police have solved 43% of last year's killings. St. Louis police have solved just 31% of theirs.

Police leaders say witnesses are simply too scared to cooperate.

The biggest challenge we have is witness participation," St. Louis police Chief John Hayden said. "They are worried about retaliation. That's a legitimate concern, but at the same time it allows an environment to perpetuate so the suspects get away, many times, with their crimes."

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a Kansas City police spokesman, said 70% of people who survive being shot refuse to name their assailant.

"We can't submit a case for prosecution if our victim does not cooperate," Becchina said.

The escalation in killings in Missouri is particularly puzzling since homicides have declined in many U.S. cities. Police in both Missouri cities believe the state's lax gun laws are a contributing factor, including a 2017 law that allowed firearms to be carried without a permit.

Hayden said the presence of a gun means that disagreements are more likely to escalate beyond a shouting match or fist fight.

If a gun is introduced into that chaos, there's somebody that's shot that's not getting up," Hayden said.

Gov. Mike Parson has met multiple times with leaders of both cities and ordered state troopers to help patrol in St. Louis. But Parson, a Republican and a staunch gun rights supporter, has declined to endorse any effort to change state gun laws.

Drugs are a common denominator in many killings. Hayden said about half of all St. Louis killings involve drugs. Becchina said most of the drug-related shootings in Kansas City are marijuana deals gone bad — typically either the seller or the buyer trying to rob the other.

Another factor cited by Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the increasing prevalence of guns that can fire multiple rounds quickly, such as semi-automatic guns.

"So you can spray an area, leading to more bystander killings," Rosenfeld said.

Last year, many of those bystanders were children, including 11 victims ages 16 or younger in St. Louis. They included 3-year-old Kennedi Powell, who was hit by stray gunfire while her father handed out slices of pizza outside a home; 10-year-old Eddie Hill IV, who was shot by an assault rifle fired from a passing car; and 7-year-old Xavier Usanga, who was killed in his own backyard.

Kansas City breaks down its killings differently, and statistics show that 16 victims were under the age of 20.

A program called the Kansas City No Violence Alliance earned accolades in 2014 when the number of killings dropped to 86, far less than previous years. The program identified people at high risk of violence and used intervention to try and persuade them to change their ways.

But the number of killings gradually rose and the No Violence Alliance was ended last year.

Both cities are focusing resources on high-crime areas. In St. Louis, a dangerous north side area has been dubbed "Hayden's Rectangle" because Hayden is targeting it with tougher enforcement. In Kansas City, the focus is an area that makes up about 10% of the land mass but accounts for 85% of the violence.

Both cities also are trying new approaches. St. Louis is spending $5 million on a program called Cure Violence. The Chicago-based program has had success elsewhere by training people from high-crime areas to intervene in conflicts before they escalate and changing social norms. Hayden also plans an outreach to encourage middle school and high school students to "avoid risky people and risky behavior."

Kansas City is using a federal program called Project Safe Neighborhoods that combines efforts of law enforcement, community groups and others to get dangerous criminals off the streets. Police also did away with a mounted patrol unit to free up eight additional officers for homicide cases.

"We're open to ideas and we won't stop trying," Becchina said.

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