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Kansas City Launches New Effort to Counter Gun Violence Candid Conversations with At-Risk Men Who Could be Victims or Perpetrators 

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Above image credit: A familiar scene in Kansas City neighborhoods are vigils, held to honor of victims of homicides. Balloons, and t-shirts imprinted with the face of the deceased are common, along with passionate pleas for gun violence to stop. (Courtesy | AdHoc Group Against Crime)
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7 minute read

One young man didn’t realize that he’d chosen to sit sandwiched between two of the highest-profile people in Kansas City. 

Their race and gender threw him off. 

Kansas City’s Black mayor was on one side. The female chief of police was on his other. 

Introductions were made and the three began to talk. 

Separately, another young man admitted to a deputy police chief that he struggles with his mental health, the result of seeing loved ones die by violence. 

Yet another young man felt hopeless, stuck. He had enemies and told a police officer: “Even if I change, they will come for me. I have to carry a gun.” 

Getting a job, like in fast food, didn’t feel like an option. 

“They will learn where I am,” he told the officer. 

These accounts are from participants in the first “call-in” for SAVE KC, shorthand for Stand Against Violence Everyone/Everywhere/Everyday. 

About 20 people were on the list. They were identified by police and prosecutors who believe they are either at risk of becoming the city’s next murder victim, or of being the next person to pull a trigger. 

Because their lives are entwined with violence, it could go either way — victim or victimizer. 


Last week, many of those who had been in the room on the May 30 call-in — police, probation and parole professionals, health department officials, the prosecutor’s office, clergy, federal law enforcement and Urban League leadership — regrouped. 

Their meeting was to debrief, a time to assess. 

“One of the biggest takeaways of the first call-in was that the 22- and 23-year-olds said that we were talking to the wrong group,” said Cecil Wattree Jr., a division manager with the Kansas City Health Department. 

Wattree said the young men told him, “The 15, 16-year-olds are who you need to talk to.” 

The reason, Wattree explained later, is that many of the people who are later involved in violence, first experience it in middle school. 

Six of the people included in this first round of SAVE KC are juveniles, said Joseph Mabin, a deputy chief with the Kansas City Police Department. 

There will likely be another call-in for a different group of at-risk Kansas Citians later in the summer. But participants might be handled differently, with more individual visits rather than a large group. 

The May event was held at an undisclosed location, a spot believed to be safe and non-threatening. Media was not allowed to be present. 

Dinner was served and a somber tone set. 

SAVE KC is the city’s new iteration of an anti-violence approach well known in criminal justice circles. 

Focused deterrence originated in 1996 in Boston, a city that Kansas City would like to emulate for its success

In Boston, advocates here said, the approach has become less of a planned program and more engrained in how the city’s law enforcement, justice system, social service networks and community leadership interacts to stem violence, especially among young people. 

Boston has had four homicides in 2024, as of June 9. In contrast, Kansas City has had 64 homicides as of June 12.   

Focused deterrence relies on the fact that in communities a tiny percentage of people — single digits of the population — commit most of the violent crimes. 

And poverty, often generational, is deeply interwoven with crime. 

The program targets those people and their associates with offers of help with things like jobs, training, housing assistance or counseling. But it also makes it clear that if they don’t alter their behavior, they’re already known to police and a likely outcome is arrest, followed by incarceration.  

“It went very well,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “I had been worried about no lived experience. But the mother, her story was so powerful.” 

Grant was referring to a mother whose son was murdered last fall. 

Her conversation with the young men was described as unscripted, poignant and creating a moment when “you could hear a pin drop.” 

The mother’s tone wasn’t browbeating. She simply spoke as a woman who deeply loved her son and is now left without him because of the violence that those called to the meeting have either engaged in or are in danger of having occur to them. 

The majority of those called were already connected to the probation and parole system. 

At another point in the evening, slides were shown. Twenty faces, each of someone either incarcerated or dead by homicide. 

The faces, police said, were familiar to some of those gathered, as friends or associates. 

It reflected the basic concept that much violence, especially gunfire, is concentrated among people often known to police, prosecutors and their communities. 

Under focused deterrence, that’s viewed as an opportunity. 

Mabin spoke about the need to ensure that call-ins don’t inadvertently rile beefs among differing groups, just by putting them in the same room. 

It’s a real possibility that was discussed with some of the young men who gathered. 

More customized meetings such as individualized visits might be an appealing alternative, in lieu of large groups. And different approaches will be needed to specifically work with juveniles. 

“We have to meet them where they are,” Mabin said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that everyone leaves safe.” 

Focused Deterrence

If the term “focused deterrence” sounds familiar, it might be because Kansas City has already tried it. 

A decade ago, the program was called KC NoVA, shorthand for No Violence Alliance. 

A study of KC NoVA noted that “the city averaged more than 100 homicides a year from 2010 through 2013.” 

It had initial success, with a drop in homicides. In 2014, there were 82 homicides, a historic drop. 

Yet police and the prosecutor’s office have admitted that among the challenges KC NoVA faced was that the old program was far too punitive. 

Mabin, in a May meeting with the South Kansas City Alliance, said that under KC NoVA, police “weren’t as flexible.” 

A man in a police uniform and a woman in a white blazer stand before a screen with the words "Focused Deterrence."
Officials have been meeting with community members to discuss the focused deterrence model to curb gun violence. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Kansas City Deputy Police Chief Joseph Mabin spoke at the South Kansas City Alliance in May 2024. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

But the program was effectively killed when the former Chief of Police Rick Smith pulled the department’s support in 2018. 

By 2023, Kansas City had 182 homicides, the highest the city has ever recorded. (KCPD data does not include officer-involved homicides). 

Focused deterrence relies on deep, sustained cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors, city agencies and community. Without it, the program will not be sustainable, advocates said. 

Additionally, crime, including homicide, tends to fluctuate. It happens for many reasons that can be difficult to calculate by cause and effect, as opposed to correlation. 

KC NoVA had the support of researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology. SAVE KC will also track data and outcomes. 

Seth Fallik will be moving to Kansas City as principal investigator. 

Fallik, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, grew up in Kansas City and received his master’s degree in criminal justice and criminology at UMKC, before earning his doctorate at Sam Houston State University in Texas. 

KC NoVA’s main researcher, Ken Novak, mentored Fallik, who attended the debriefing meeting. 

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker cautioned that rapt attention needed to be paid to the case workers involved, so that they’re not overwhelmed by being unfairly asked to provide help for too many people. 

Wattree agreed. 

“We don’t want unrealistic expectations that can’t be met,” he said. 

The potential for SAVE KC caseloads to escalate was further detailed by Vince Ortega, executive director of COMBAT, a 30-year-old taxpayer-funded effort by Jackson County to fund anti-violence programs. 

COMBAT stands for the Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax. 

Ortega was at the debriefing meeting after the first call-in. 

One person might be hit with a bullet in a drive-by shooting, he said. But if there were four other people in the car and even more in the group was shot into, the number of people needing help quickly escalates. 

And it could be any one of them who might become involved in retaliatory violence. 

The sheer level of trauma among the group called in struck Ortega, and many others who were present. 

One young man, Ortega said, was staring forward, not connecting. 

“I could tell that he was suffering,” Ortega said. 

Ensuring that the right type of help is available quickly to the people involved is crucial. 

Several of those attending the call-in talked about housing instability and difficulty with rent. Others could use a public defender to help with unpaid traffic tickets. 

Marvia Jones, director of the Kansas City Health Department, said that there are some sections of the city where there are high rates of homes without water, and where the city has shut off service for nonpayment. 

Jones warned about conflicting messages. 

At the call-in, the young men are assured that the officials in the room care about them and are ready to help. 

And yet, some of them very likely returned to homes without water. 

“If your city allows you to live in a home without water, you can see that your city values you less,” Jones said. 

She posed a question: “Are our policies humane as a city?” 

Jones added that she wasn’t trying to resurrect old crime-fighting theories such as the “broken windows” concept. That’s a highly criticized belief that crime can be managed by focusing on areas of town with disinvestment, hence the phrase “broken windows.” 

The problem is that rather than offering social services help, the broken windows approach encouraged over-enforcement and a strident police presence in lower income and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

A similar fear about focused deterrence is often cited by critics. 

In addition, there are multiple nonprofit teams in town focused on preventing violence. They mediate conflicts and stop violence before it occurs. 

These are groups that have deep contacts with people most affected by violent crime. For instance, some work with local hospitals, responding to emergency rooms after a shooting. Their goal is to talk with those gathered to discourage retaliation. 

Judy Sherry being interviewed at Mill Creek Park.
Judy Sherry, president and founder of the local group, Grandparents For Gun Safety (Stand With Us), gets ready to do one more interview at a rally in Mill Creek Park. Sherry, like many leaders in the movement for gun violence prevention, is always ready with facts and statistics to make her points. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

It’s understood that some of those groups are hesitant or may not ever become involved with SAVE KC, Wattree and others said. 

That’s fine, they said. Credibility is important. 

They also don’t want to appear too close to law enforcement or the criminal justice system out of concern it would undermine their rapport. 

Fallik spoke to the need to create a program for the long haul. 

“I will be that annoying voice who will talk about sustainability,” Fallik told the group. 

One of his roles will be to create procedures so that they can be replicated in other cities. Another reason to create an enduring program is the reality that most of those who gathered for the meeting will not be involved decades from now. 

“If things are codified, they go from one administration to the next,” he said. 

Hiring is also important, he said, as a way of making focused deterrence one of the organization’s core principles. 

“So when you are communicating with folks, as soon as they walk in the door, it’s: ‘This is what we are. This is what we do,’” he said. 

At the same time, staying nimble and willing to change through community feedback and shifting crime patterns will be key. 

“You have to stay ahead of it,” Fallik said. “The way crime was 10 years ago is not the same as it is today.” 

Mary Sanchez is a senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.

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