'This Is Insanity': Alarming Week of Gun Violence Across KC Tied to Public Health Failures

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Over the last week, the Kansas City metro area has been plagued by a high pace of violence that has even caused the mayor to publicly criticize the city's current approach to violence reduction.

Since Nov. 29, 12 people have died and more have been injured in shootings and homicides across the metro.

Monday saw the most bloodshed in a 24-hour span. In the wee hours of the day, two separate shootings across Kansas City left two people dead and sent two others to area hospitals.

Another individual was shot and killed later in the day and two more shootings took place in the evening, leaving one person dead and another injured.

In Kansas City alone, there have been 145 homicides this year, according to data maintained by The Star. By this time last year — the deadliest year on record — the city had suffered 176 homicides. In 2019, there had been 143 homicides by this time, according to The Star's data.

"Isn't it embarrassing that we, in Kansas City, talk about the fact that we are not going to approach our record breaking year as if it is a model of success? I mean, we are on pace right now to have pretty much the second most violent year in the city's history," Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas told The Star.

"This is insanity. This is not success. This is a sign of a substantial challenge to the future of our city and the greatness of our city."

Lucas said Monday that the recent spike in violent crime was likely the least surprising of all political issues for the last year because the same thing keeps happening.

"It is a blight on the city's reputation, on the quality of life for every Kansas Citian, and for so many of our young people who live a life knowing violent crime and death, that this is just something that we kind of shake our heads about and move on from," Lucas said.

Kansas City, and Missouri as a whole, has for years suffered from exceptionally high rates of gun violence. To understand why the city and state were in such dire straits, The Star undertook the Missouri Gun Violence Project, seeking to highlight and explore the root causes and potential solutions to gun violence.

The Star's investigations have found that inadequacies in public health factors — housing and food security for example — increased availability of guns, systemic inequality, a lack of trust in police and domestic violence are major causes of gun violence and homicides both across the metro and statewide.

Solutions to curb gun violence require much more than increased policing, according to a wide variety of experts, researchers, law enforcement officials, victims and perpetrators of violence.

Instead, experts and community members say, solutions should be grounded in public health and anti-violence approaches.

When asked about the recent spike in gun violence, the Kansas City Police Department pointed to interpersonal conflict driving the death toll in the city. Policing can only be one part of any solution that comes forth, Capt. Leslie Foreman, a spokeswoman for the department said.

"Crime, particularly violent crime, is a multi-factorial challenge to the communities affected by it. Police are one factor in the entire process," Foreman said in a statement to The Star.

On Nov. 29, 27-year-old Justin M. Doza-Adams was found dead in a vacant lot in the 8100 block of Independence Avenue.

Police were called to the scene just before 10 a.m. that day. Responding officers located the body and though the cause of death has yet to be released, police said the death was "sufficiently suspicious that it is being investigated as a homicide."

Missouri's largest cities are blighted with acres of abandoned lots and buildings, owned both publicly and privately. Star analysis has shown that gun violence follows the vacancy from neighborhood to neighborhood virtually without fail.

All but one of the 10 Kansas City neighborhoods with the most vacancies also had higher than average shooting rates. Six of the neighborhoods were in the top 10 for both their rate of vacant land and shootings.

Gun violence and the public health problems of cities, such as abandoned properties, are fatally linked.

The day after Doza-Adams' body was found, a woman was found shot and killed in a parked vehicle in Raytown near 74th Street and Raytown Road.

Tragedy struck again on Dec. 1 in Kansas City, Kansas, when a man allegedly shot and critically injured his girlfriend, a 3-year-old boy and killed a 7-year-old girl before shooting and killing himself.

Wyandotte County consistently ranks near the bottom of County Health Rankings in Kansas. The rankings, published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, take into account factors such as crime rates, education levels, incomes, children living in poverty, and housing. In 2021, Wyandotte ranked 104 out of 105 (one of the counties was not ranked).

The violence across the metro continued on Dec. 1 as one person was injured in a shooting near Southeast High School in Kansas City and another person was killed by gunfire from a passing vehicle on Kansas City's east side.

Nine other people were shot and killed across the Kansas City metro since, and multiple others were rushed to hospitals suffering from gunshot wounds.

Gun violence is best viewed as a public health problem, experts say.

Solutions to public health woes should involve investing in improvements in underlying life conditions that put people at greater or lesser risk: income, housing and food security, schools and living environments.

Missouri has failed compared to most other states when it comes to public health — the state ranks sixth-to-last in the nation for public health system funding.

Conditions that lead to extremes of poverty and gun violence are a product of historical, structural racism.

Black Missourians are twice as likely to live in poverty compared to their white counterparts and die from homicide at more than nine times the average rate for the general U.S. population, far outpacing every other state.

Housing and food instability add to the issue of gun violence. Without a stable home, people are more likely to pick up a gun to secure their personal safety.

Upheaval, stress and trauma from housing problems led to desperation, conflict and even suicide: Of the 10 Jackson County census tracts with the highest numbers of shootings, all but one also had higher than average eviction rates.

Nearly all of the Kansas City neighborhoods with the highest rates of shootings last year lacked access to a grocery store within half a mile.

Of the 10 census tracts in Kansas City with the highest rates of shooting in 2020, 80% were low income areas without access to a supermarket or grocery store for at least half a mile.

Missouri has provided less aid to schools in communities experiencing high levels of gun violence over the years, helping to create cycles of gun violence and poor educational outcomes.

The four jurisdictions with the highest rates of firearm deaths — St. Louis City and Jackson, Mercer and Reynolds counties — all had lower than average rates of state aid to school districts.

After a shooting midday on Sunday took the life of 60-year-old Donald McDaniel in Kansas City, a neighbor, Robert Cornelius, 50, who's lived on the block since 2017, told The Star he wants to see more officers patrolling the neighborhood.

Cornelius said he heard about eight or nine shots late Sunday morning as he was getting ready to go to the store.

"We don't want that stuff in our neighborhood ... we don't know these people," he said in the hours after the shooting. "We don't want them over here. We don't need them over here wreaking havoc."

KCPD has said it believes more officers would help the department and impact the city's violent crime. However, in 2020, the department's homicide unit more than doubled in size and the city still experienced an increase in homicide compared to the previous year.

A lack of trust in police — driven by disparate treatment in Black communities — has helped fuel gun violence in the state, according to research conducted by the Giffords Law Center and a Star analysis of law enforcement and community survey data.

The Star previously interviewed more than 100 residents across the city and found that overall, the less people saw gun violence in their neighborhoods, the more they trusted police. And the more often people had to call the police the less they trusted them.

At the same time, patterns of official complaints show the Kansas City Police Department has alienated itself especially in places with the highest rates of gun violence as well as most of the city's predominantly Black neighborhoods: the majority of police misconduct complaints came from these areas.

Meanwhile, effective anti-violence efforts in Kansas City are not receiving proper funding.

Aim4Peace, modeled on the national Cure Violence public health approach, represents one of Kansas City's only viable strategies for reducing gun violence.

But the city has never expanded it beyond a pilot program. It has been running on minimum funding for years and has seen its budget cut repeatedly.

Lucas said Monday there is an implementation problem in how Kansas City addresses violent crime. He pointed to Aim4Peace, additional community policing and more officers on patrol as methods that actually work, but said those things aren't implemented effectively.

He said there has been too much time spent talking about administrative and bureaucratic issues instead of ways to add more officers, community leaders or activists to the streets.

"What we need to have is a realistic conversation on what's working and what's not," Lucas said.

"To the extent if something's not working — which obviously it isn't, because we're one of the most violent cities in America — then we need to have a real chat about 'all right, what are new tools that we can have to try to address it?' Everybody needs to be part of that conversation. And the answer isn't just leave us alone and give us more money."