For years, Kansas City, Missouri, has suffered from one of the highest homicide rates among big American cities.
And while it still hasn't quite reached levels seen in St. Louis or Baltimore, there's reason to be pessimistic. Some cities with violent reputations, such as New Orleans, and Oakland, California, have seen recent success in reducing homicide rates. In Kansas City, however, the violence has persisted.
In response, Kansas City police have made a stack of changes to how the department investigates violent crime — especially shootings.
The new strategies come in part thanks to the city's participation in a Department of Justice initiative called the Public Safety Partnership (PSP). The program, first announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, is designed to help cities with violent crime problems enact new tactics.
And while it's too early to say whether the shift in Kansas City will be successful, officials there are demonstrating a willingness to consider advice from outside experts.
Last year, the DOJ conducted site visits with Kansas City's homicide unit, and recommended the department add more homicide detectives, among other changes.
The federal program also facilitated visits for Kansas City police to their counterparts in Milwaukee and Tampa, Florida.
Tampa, in particular, has seen a remarkable reduction in crime over the past two decades.
"I remember watching news articles where tourists were being told, don't come to Tampa," said Captain Paul Lusczynski, who heads the Tampa Police Department's violent crimes bureau. "As a city that thrives on conventions, tourism and business relocations, having that crime label attached to us is devastating."
Crime fell in most large cities during the 1990s, but in Tampa, it kept falling into the new millenium. According to a Guns & America analysis of FBI data, Tampa's violent crime rate in 1998 was 2,557 per 100,000 residents. By 2017 it fell to 464, a drop of 82%. During the same period, Kansas City's violent crime rate went from 1,868 per 100,000 residents to 1,724 — a drop of less than 8%. FBI statistics consider violent crime to include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Use this chart to explore the crime rates in cities with a total population of similar size to Kansas City, Missouri. Tap the categories at the top to toggle between types of crimes.
One factor in Tampa's success has been the police department's willingness to change, Lusczynski said.
For example, when he was a young officer patrolling the streets, Lusczynski's sergeant told him to drive around neighborhoods, hoping it would prevent residential burglaries.
"That was basically the only instruction I got," he said. "We have a famous saying now: random policing is random results."
Tampa, like departments across the country, began to realize that proactive policing is more effective. But over-policing — such as New York City's infamous stop-and-frisk policy — creates a new set of problems. So the police pulled back a bit on proactive policing in favor of community policing, which focuses on building a better relationship with citizens.
"We've taught our officers, and our commanders push down every day — everybody we come in contact with, no matter how heinous their act, no matter how deplorable their contact is, we're still going to act with professionalism," he said. "And I think the citizens see that."
The department also overhauled itself, shifting from a centralized organizational structure to one that is more decentralized. Detectives who used to specialize in one type of crime across the whole city now work as generalists operating out of a district office. That way, Lusczynski said, they become experts in the neighborhoods where they work.
Practice Makes Perfect
Tampa's violent crime rate fell steadily, until about 2014, when gun crime began to spike.
Much of the violence was related to what Lusczynski calls "hybrid gangs," which are small gangs or groups of people that aren't part of a more structured gang.
Lusczynski proposed a new violent crimes bureau that would operate across city boundaries — in other words, he wanted to re-centralize some of the department's investigative resources.
It was "kind of against the grain," he said. "But this was a unique type of violence … we just needed to adapt a little bit."
That adaptation, coupled with Lusczynski's creation of a program to target about 50 of the city's most violent offenders, drove gun violence back down — and then some.
Gun-related crimes fell by 46% from 2015 to 2018. Nonfatal shootings dropped from 175 to about 80, he said. "The gang violence is a shadow of its former self."
In late 2018, Lusczynski's work was lauded by the DOJ. Last year, PSP officials encouraged Kansas City police to visit Lusczynski and his violent crime bureau in Tampa.
They sat in on a weekly meeting, where Lusczynski and other Tampa police sit around a huge conference table alongside representatives from other local and federal law enforcement agencies to discuss how best to target "trigger pullers" — those people identified as the city's most violent offenders.
Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith said the PSP program has been helpful for his department.
"They're saying, ‘Hey, here's a best practice. Go look at it … glean what you can that you think will work back in Kansas City and bring it back and attempt it.' And then they'll evaluate how we're doing on those things."
The department now has a weekly meeting to review every shooting in the city — nonfatal included — alongside partners from the local and federal prosecutor's office and federal law enforcement agencies. Kansas City Police are also adopting Tampa's strategy of targeting a short list of the city's most violent offenders.
"We all want crime to go down," Smith said. "If Milwaukee is doing it better, or Tampa is doing it better or Albuquerque is doing it better, it doesn't matter. If someone has an idea that we think we can incorporate here and attack violence in our city, we're all for it."
The Kansas City police department hasn't completely overhauled how it works, Smith said, but rather "tweaked" some of its overall tactics. But as police in Tampa have learned, sometimes that's all it takes.
Luis Melgar contributed to this reporting.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.