Stop the Violence … Later

 

When 127 people were slain in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2005, the city knew that it was time for drastic action. So it formed a commission to study the problem. Now, nearly two and a half years later, a commission formed by that commission is preparing to put a plan in motion.

In October 2005, city leaders convened a Commission on Violent Crime. Chaired by Stacey Daniels-Young, the commission included dozens of members, including community activists and law-enforcement officials. The commission issued a final report more than a year and a half later, in June 2006. Its recommendations were the basis for what’s now called the Community Mediation Program task force, which convened in September 2006.

The task force plans to replicate a program that has worked in other violent cities. The idea is that if people are arguing and it looks as if someone might get shot — or if someone has already been shot and the victim’s buddies want to shoot back — city dispatchers can send out street-level mediators to guide the parties to a peaceful resolution or convince them to walk away from one another. These mediators would be people who are already recognized in their communities and have some credibility. The city would pay the mediators.

Leaders in Chicago and Los Angeles say similar operations have significantly lowered homicide rates in those cities. In Kansas City, the task force would focus on the East Side zone where most homicides occur: the 25-square-mile area bordered by the Missouri River, Wabash Avenue, Interstate 435 and Blue Parkway. There, the task force reports, homicide beats heart disease, cancer and suicide as the leading cause of death among people ages 25-44.

Kevin Masters, a deputy chief with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department and a Mediation task force member, says it’s not uncommon for a cop to see two groups in two cars arguing with each other, and the cop knows they’ll start shooting as soon as he leaves. He knows someone might get killed but doesn’t have a legal reason to interfere.

Masters says there are people he could call to help him defuse those situations. “But these people have lives they’ve got to lead, and if we call on them on a moment’s notice, you can’t expect them to give free help. They’ve got to pay their bills.”

Asked what sort of mediators he would hire, Masters mentions Alonzo Washington and former City Council candidates Mark Porter and Rita Valenciano. Other well-known activists, including Meet Me in the Middle’s Ron Hunt, P.O.S.S.E. director Ossco Bolton and the Gatekeepers’ Octavia Southall (also a former council candidate), are already members of the task force.

Even though the idea sounds good, Porter and others have doubts about how well it will work — and whether the city is getting the most out of the $600,000 it has budgeted to launch the program.

Porter’s main concern is that city officials don’t have any idea what a street mediator really does.

“A lot of times you deal with the city, they don’t really see the activist thing,” Porter says. “You have to prepare yourself. You have to know the situation you’re going into and whether to go in with someone. You have to know if it’s a gang situation, and you have to be able to adapt. There’s no cut-and-dried way.”

The city already has an office of community relations and dispute resolution on the fourth floor of City Hall. Rhonda Harris, who manages it, agrees that the city doesn’t have the background or training to deal with street mediation, as Porter does. Nonetheless, to be part of this program, potential mediators must go through training to fit their styles to the city’s mediation policies. That’s where trouble might start.

Street mediation involves more than just talking to people, Porter says. “Sometimes, I’ve had to spend $20 out of my own pocket to solve problems — people are ready to shoot each other over something simple like who owes who what, because no one wants to lose face, and I’d rather pay $20 than see you dead. I don’t know if the city understands that.”

The task force also appears to have a problem understanding geography. The program’s pilot budget calls for $70,000 worth of improvements to a city-owned building at 4900 Swope Parkway, which will serve as the mediation program’s headquarters. But it’s at the far southern edge of the target zone.

“You’re going to tell somebody to walk over to a building and settle things? No, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Porter says. “If you’re going to squash something, you got to squash it there and then.”

Other observers question the need to spend more than $150,000 for new, specially trained staff and another $20,000 for a kickoff event to make sure that everybody knows help is on the way. (Most of that kickoff cash, $13,000, is earmarked to cover travel costs for two special presenters at the event, though task force members say nothing specific has been planned other than a few meals, some posters and the awarding of prizes.)

“I see this program as just awards being given and trips being given, city staff getting $40,000 for a nice sit-down job at a nice desk, and not one dime of it going to the neighborhood to help people,” says Rachel Riley, organizer of the 24th Street Nonviolent Marchers. A member of the Commission on Violent Crime, Riley says she wouldn’t be so upset about the money spent renovating the Swope Parkway building if it were in the middle of the target zone instead of on the edge, or if she saw the city investing in things for kids to do.

Porter agrees that the budget is a concern.

“I’m not knocking the program, but a whole lot of these funds are going on the administrative side,” he says. “If you got three groups out there handling mediation, how do you do this if one group is doing all the mediation and getting paid and another isn’t doing anything and is getting paid? How are you going to get the funds where they need to be?”

Perhaps the biggest problem is timing. The task force might be ready to get the program rolling this year, but not until after it’s needed most. Summer is the worst time of year for shootings. The mediation won’t start until late August at the earliest.

The task force has yet to formally identify mediators, write a policy and procedures manual, send mediators through training or work out cooperation procedures with hospitals and schools that might want to call in problems, says Tracie McClendon, a task force member who is the justice program coordinator with the city manager’s office. “We’ll be focusing a lot on public education,” she says.

Meanwhile, as of press time, the city is up to 31 homicides this year.

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