117 Homicides and Counting
Anti-violence activists pull up to the corner of 27th Street and Benton, cars following as slowly and methodically as a funeral procession. Everyone is wearing the same black T-shirts with the name Aim4Peace printed across the chest as they unload signs from their trunks.
They’re here for a march. The plan is to let the neighborhood know there’s a new group in town, intent on stemming the violence that has killed, by this point in the year — it’s early August — almost 70 people.
Less than 20 minutes before their arrival, a car stopped in front of the E & J Market on the corner, and someone fired a gun out the car window.
People on the street say they don’t know who the shooter was or why he fired. At least no one was hurt.
This story gets passed around as the activists congregate along the corner. They all look shocked.
Most of the 50 or so people gathering here aren’t affiliated with any particular group outside Aim4Peace, the City Hall program that has organized the march. Today’s marchers just want their neighborhoods to be safer. They form a circle in the grocery store’s driveway and pass around a microphone, from neighborhood leaders to preachers and then to staffers from Aim4Peace.
Once everyone has had their say, they all start to walk. They wave signs in the air. They scream, “We aim for peace!”
People come out of their apartment buildings and stand on their lawns to watch. Others lounging on their porches sit unmoved, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. Some of the marchers run up to the onlookers, hand them brochures and shake their hands. The residents say the cops are on their way to investigate the shooting.
The marchers round the third block of the four that they’ll circle. A squad car is parked on this corner with lights flashing. Four people are huddled around its passenger-side window.
The parade finishes back at the E & J Market, where a few people are still standing in the parking lot. An old man standing there pulls a drag from a cigarette. Two little girls are standing next to him.
“I appreciate what they’re trying to do,” the man tells one of the girls, who doesn’t appear to be listening. “It’s nice. It’s nice sentiment. But it doesn’t matter. No one’s going to save anybody. Not never.”
The marchers congratulate one another, get into their cars and leave.
City Hall’s anti-violence effort started two years ago. After 127 homicides in 2005, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council put together a crime commission to look for solutions.
In June 2006, the city’s Commission on Violent Crime submitted its final report to the council.
The commission concluded that most homicides were the result of long-standing conflicts and disagreements, and it recommended, among other things, an expansion of mediation and conflict-resolution services.
That commission led to another commission. City Manager Wayne Cauthen created a Mediation Task Force made up of 11 people — community activists as well as employees of city government and the police department.
In late 2006, the task force presented a plan authored by Tracie McClendon-Cole, the city’s Justice Program coordinator. (McClendon-Cole, who works in Cauthen’s office, declined to speak with The Pitch for this story.) McClendon-Cole based her recommendations on a successful Chicago anti-violence effort called CeaseFire.
CeaseFire was launched in 2000 by the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health. After studying violence-prevention programs in several cities, the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention designed a program that focused primarily on conflict mediation. If a shooting occurred, trained mediators paid visits to people who had been involved to try to prevent retaliation shootings. Many of those paid mediators were former gang members with inroads to current gang members.
The mediation aspect has universal appeal: Regardless of the different demographics of American cities, people are always angered by the loss of their loved ones.
“You’ve got the walking wounded out there,” says Ron McMillan, a Kansas City community activist and an original Mediation Task Force member who left the group last summer. “For every victim, there’s 10 people, conservatively, who cared about that person. That adds up to 1,000 people a year walking around in this one part of the city with no hope, angry, depressed, who see no light.”
Since it began, CeaseFire has been adopted in 15 Chicago neighborhoods and by five other cities in Illinois. It has spawned direct copies in cities such as Baltimore; Cincinnati; and Newark, New Jersey.
In areas where CeaseFire operates, shootings have dropped between 17 percent and 24 percent, according to an independent three-year study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice.
CeaseFire’s own reports indicate that in its first year, which focused on the most violent part of Chicago’s West Side as a pilot zone, the program cut shootings by 67 percent.
McClendon-Cole used those stats to sell the program here. She proposed a Kansas City version — Aim4Peace — that focused on an initial target zone bordered by the Missouri River to the north, Wabash Avenue to the west, Interstate 435 on the east, and Blue Parkway on the south. That’s the area where, according to Mediation Task Force projections, people between the ages of 24 and 44 are more likely to die as homicide victims than from any other cause, including heart disease, cancer, suicide or HIV/AIDS. If it worked there, the program could eventually expand.
The original plan was to have specialized mediators — one for schools, one for neighborhoods, one for landlords and tenants — along with a crisis-intervention specialist, a hospital outreach worker and an administrative assistant. The organization would be a classic bureaucracy, with mediators under other specialized mediators working under the oversight of city offices, ultimately reporting to the city’s Human Relations Department.
Ideally, the project would work on several fronts. Mediators acting as neutral third parties could negotiate truces in dangerous situations. Other workers could focus on trying to improve quality of life within the East Side target zone and foster peace in the community. Eventually, people could resolve their disputes without guns.
In Chicago, CeaseFire operates on an annual budget of more than $1.5 million. Federal grants totaling $1.7 million last year have kept similar programs in other cities going.
In Kansas City, Mediation Task Force members figured that they could get Aim4Peace up and running for much less and requested just $600,000 in start-up costs from City Hall. They estimated that they could get another $250,000 from grants and community support.
The investment seemed easily justifiable — McClendon-Cole noted that preventing a single shooting saved an estimated $174,000 in costs associated with handling cases.
But Aim4Peace barely got that.
“I found no credible evidence anywhere and saw no management tool to give me the comfort level needed to send that money to a program on violent crime,” says Councilwoman Deb Hermann, who has chaired of the Finance and Audit Committee since May 2007. “We’re underfunding the police. Where were the performance measures saying what’s going to be accomplished the first year?”
Although reports on such programs suggested that they were effective, Hermann argues that an anti-violence program should have been run in coordination with the police department (even though people living in high-violence areas often refuse to cooperate with police). She adds that the council should have demanded that the program meet specific benchmarks for its effectiveness (even though such benchmarks would have been impossible to estimate because no comparable programs had been tried in Kansas City).
Even assuming the statistics on CeaseFire’s success could be replicated here, Hermann doubts that anyone on the council in 2005 was paying attention to a program started at the end of Mayor Kay Barnes’ administration.
“Six or seven of them were running for mayor, and everyone had a program,” she says of her fellow council members. “Everyone had a press conference. Everyone had a deal. If you look at the budget problems we have now, a lot of it’s because there was one thing all of those candidates wanted to do. And my belief is, if a program like that was going to work, it wouldn’t work being operated by the city.”
Hermann is already skeptical of Aim4Peace’s continued place in the budget as the city faces massive shortfalls. “I won’t support anything in the budget that doesn’t have a proven impact on Kansas City.”
Meanwhile, more cities are copying the CeaseFire plan. On September 10, Seattle officials announced their own program, the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, based on a review of the community outreach programs in Chicago and Baltimore. The Seattle mayor has already announced $9 million for the program in the 2009-10 budget.
Of Kansas City’s effort, McMillan says, “It’s like they set it up to fail — $600,000? I don’t know how they came to that number, but it was never going to be enough. A new administration came in, and the new one didn’t care about it.”
After 2006 ended with 115 homicides, the rate dipped to 94 in 2007. As of press time, 117 people have been killed this year.
October 17 is a bad morning at Central High School. Last night, student LeAunte Brown, 16, was found dead on a sidewalk at the 4600 block of East 40th Street. Teachers crowd together in one corner of the cafeteria. “Of course, they’re not going to talk to us,” says one. “They don’t want to talk to anyone about it.”
Sitting at a cafeteria table is Ossco Bolton, founder and director of P.O.S.S.E. (Peers Organized to Support Student Excellence) and one of the Mediation Task Force members who started Aim4Peace.
“Look around — you see how scared everyone is,” Bolton says. When he was a teenager, he was a gang member. Now he works with students, trying to keep them from repeating his mistakes.
Like McMillan, Bolton was on the task force during the 2007 hiring sessions. Men like Bolton, with old gang ties, have been a big reason that CeaseFire works elsewhere. But they say that when they sat down to interview prospective applicants, the city’s hiring policies kept them from reaching the most qualified people.
“The people with criminal backgrounds weren’t going to be hired,” McMillan says.
“In Chicago, they got the real-deal Holyfields in the street,” Bolton says. “Those are the people who know the neighborhoods, who grew up in them.” But with Aim4Peace structured as a city program, people who are close to the streets and have access to gang members and other criminals would become city employees. “You’ve got to fit the city standards of who can come in,” Bolton says. “And right away, that cuts a lot of people out.”
According to the city’s Human Resources Rules & Policy Manual, job applicants can be disqualified if they have active warrants. An applicant who has been convicted of three or more misdemeanors or violations of ordinances can’t be hired without approval by a committee within the human resources department.
Bolton says that during a visit to Chicago, he saw how that program’s oversight by a university allowed for looser hiring regulations than those in place within Kansas City government.
But even if the hiring standards had been looser, Bolton says, the people he thought would be best for the job never would have applied. He attributes this to a failure in marketing the program. Many of the people he spoke to during the hiring process told him that they had never heard of it; those who had were suspicious of its origins.
The hiring problems delayed Aim4Peace for months. Project officials had hoped to get it onto the streets by August 2007. That month, the city put out a notice that the program still needed to fill 12 positions, including a program coordinator and intervention and outreach workers.
Bolton says administrators turned down the application of at least one other potentially useful person. Bolton had been among those who interviewed Alonzo Washington, an activist who uses his MySpace page to gather tips on unsolved crimes and who was instrumental in solving the Precious Doe murder.
“You’ve got to have your guys like Alonzo because they know their corners,” Bolton says. But because he lives in Kansas, Washington couldn’t work for the city of Kansas City, Missouri, says McMillan, who was also on the hiring committee.
Washington declined comment regarding his rejection by Aim4Peace. Following The Pitch‘s request for an interview, he posted a blog entry about the program on his MySpace page.
“Aim for Peace sucks,” Washington wrote. “They have no clue about how to fight crime in this hell hole we call Kansas City. People can see it…. The group turned me down. Now, it’s blowing up on them. Aim for peace has a lot of money with no vision. It’s clear that I should be running the group. However, people with power hate me…. Clearly, if I joined the group nobody would see the rest of Aim for Peace and they fear that. So, maybe the Pitch will do a article about this. I still think this group would never work with me. Although, they need me real bad.”
“A lot of people that didn’t get hired got pissed off,” McMillan says. “When people get pissed, they get angry at the program and then they go around and trash it.”
There were also turf battles among activists.
“There were guys who had experience, but they came in wanting to sell their organizations rather than being individuals on the staff,” Bolton says. “This is a game of humility. I’m not trying to get on cameras. You can have that. That’s not realistic to me.”
Bolton left the task force so that he could get back to running P.O.S.S.E.
McMillan agrees that there were egos at play but doubts they hurt community outreach. He says he left the task force because he didn’t want to be on the city payroll, which might hurt his ability to publicly pressure city officials. “I got out because if I stayed in, I couldn’t talk,” McMillan says. “I want to be able to put pressure on the city. A lot of the commission members left to go back to their own things.”
Though he’s no longer involved with the program, McMillan says he still supports Aim4Peace. “It’s in its infancy. It just needs time.”
But it doesn’t have time. The program was launched with a two-year pilot period to prove itself.
It’s almost evening on a mid-October day, and Pat Clarke is walking down Prospect Avenue in a letterman’s jacket. The word “SCARFACE” is stitched across the chest.
As a kid in the 1970s, Clarke split his time between selling drugs and playing baseball. He turned that around before his 30th birthday and started SCARFACE (Show Courage, Appreciation, Respect For All Children Everywhere), a clumsy acronym based on a childhood nickname that he earned after a dumb accident with a razor blade.
Today, SCARFACE is known mostly for coordinating, coaching and supporting athletic programs for youth (“Ministers with Balls,” April 6, 2006).
He’s exactly the type of worker Aim4Peace coordinators said they wanted when they proposed “contracted volunteers and crisis intervention teams who have street credibility to intervene in East Patrol hot spots.”
Clarke is not a man to walk fast. He stops in a restaurant for a moment to say hello to the counter worker, then at a beauty salon to check in with the stylists.
Two skinny men stop him on the street. They shake hands; they laugh.
“I’m looking for work, Pat,” one says. He smiles, and you can peer through the slots where his incisors should be.
“I’ve got some applications for construction,” Clarke tells them. “You got to come see me. I’ll get you some applications. And the city’s always looking for people in public works.”
“I don’t know that stuff,” says the taller one, with a full smile. “I don’t know if they’d take me.”
“They’ll train you. Just fill out an application. Come see me. You know where I am. I’ve always got applications.”
“OK, Pat,” the tall one says. “I’ll come get you later.” The one with the missing teeth nods. They all shake hands. Clarke walks north while they go south.
In summer 2007, Clarke was one of the applicants looking for a spot with Aim4Peace. On paper, he looked like a good match. Clarke was already known for working with kids on the East Side. His youthful crimes had given him street cred like the Chicago workers. And he’s a familiar face in his neighborhood.
But the Mediation Task Force hiring committee — including McMillan and Bolton — rejected his application to work as a street mediator. The committee later called him back as a potential candidate for project organizing, but then sent him a letter rejecting him again. By that time, he says, he didn’t care.
“I’d been through so many meetings. I’m so sick of it, man. Everyone’s talking about what should and shouldn’t be done,” he says. “And people don’t always like each other.”
Clarke kept running SCARFACE but started to see Aim4Peace workers on the street.
He says neighborhood people ignored the street mediators. The people they were trying to reach didn’t know who they were or what their program was about. If they tried to talk to someone whose family or friends had been slain — as CeaseFire workers do in Chicago — they couldn’t.
“They’d show up at people’s houses and want to throw them a barbecue,” Clarke says. “People slammed the door in their faces. It’d be like, ‘My son just got shot, and you’re talking about hot dogs?’ They came down here and were viewed as outsiders.”
At the start of the summer, Clarke says, he got a call from a friend about a brawl at Central Middle School during what was supposed to have been an awards ceremony. He arrived and found students and parents attacking one another. When police arrived and the fighting stopped, two volunteers wearing Aim4Peace shirts walked up behind the police. They asked what had happened, but the cops wouldn’t answer.
“They came up to me and asked what was going on, and could I get the cops to talk to them so they’d know who to go talk to,” Clarke says. “On the streets, it’s a joke. No one knows who they are.”
So Clarke was surprised this October, when he got a call from McClendon-Cole, asking him if he’d join Aim4Peace as a street mediator.
“She called me, saying ‘It’s not how it was supposed to be, and we’re trying to turn it around,'” he says.
Clarke took the job. A week later, he was walking the street as an Aim4Peace mediator. The city issued him a cell phone — he’s essentially on-call all hours of the day.
“I just don’t want no pussies with me,” he says. “I’m not letting anyone follow me around who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or make me look bad. I almost told them that they didn’t want me when they had the chance, so they could kiss my ass. But I have to do this.”
He has even agreed to wear an Aim4Peace hat and shirt. “Don’t think I didn’t try to negotiate that bullshit,” he says.
It’s a bitterly cold morning, the second Saturday of November, and Aim4Peace is out again. This time, it’s the corner of 27th Street and Prospect. It’s called a “Day of Peace,” but little has changed from the first public march. At 9 a.m., people gather in a circle. They give the same speeches and chant the same chants. “We aim for peace!”
Councilwomen Cathy Jolly (a vocal supporter of Aim4Peace whose office deferred comment for this story to McClendon-Cole), Melba Curls and Cindy Circo are there. So is City Manager Cauthen. Behind them is Clarke, wearing an Aim4Peace hat and his SCARFACE jacket. In back of the crowd is a long, hot grill cooking hot dogs and brats.
When they finish the rally, they plan to spread out to six new spots where they’ll hold community meetings and activities until noon, hoping to get the word out.
Though they’ve spent the majority of their start-up time watching the number of homicides rise, Cauthen is optimistic about the future of Aim4Peace.
“It’s always tough when you have to fit something into the city bureaucracy, but we have been improving and adapting,” Cauthen says. “And there’s no reason this [pilot period] can’t be extended.”
Soon, Cauthen leaves, along with most of the volunteers.
By the time this “Day of Peace” is over, the year’s homicide count stands at 113. The bodies of Rigoberto Anaya-Sanchez and Eric Flowers are found at the corner of Seventh Street and Indiana, shot dead the night before.
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