Kansas City's Jump In Homicides Is Among Nation's Leaders

Oct 4, 2016

The homicide rate in Kansas City jumped 40 percent between 2014 and 2015
Credit Tex Texin / Wikimedia Commons

Kansas City’s murder rate is getting a lot of attention.

The number of lives lost to murder in Kansas City, Missouri, spiked 40 percent between 2014 and 2015.  And that put the murder rate at 23 per 100,000 residents — among the nation’s leaders, according to FBI data released last month.  

The only large cities (population 400,000+) with higher murder rates in 2015 were Washington, D.C. (55), Milwaukee (44), Detroit (24) and Baltimore (24). NPR reported that Kansas City was one of seven cities largely responsible for the increase in murders in the U.S. last year.

Forty percent is a remarkable spike, says Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, but it's important to keep this in historical context. Killings in Kansas City in 2014 were at their lowest in four decades.

"A lot of what we’ve seen in 2015 and to some extent 2016 is a regression to the mean, or a return to normal," he says.

Local concern

Damon Daniel, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, says it’s frustrating not to better understand the fluctuation in homicide numbers in Kansas City.

"I remember like it was yesterday," Daniel says,"(Kansas City Police) Chief Forte saying about how low our murders were in 2014. Unfortunately this is something we don't take a lot of credit for because we don't know why the numbers are so low.'"

Daniel and his colleagues at Ad Hoc worry that the 91 homicides as of October 5 put Kansas City on  track to exceed last year's high number of killings.

"Most of the homicides we see here in Kansas City stem from arguments," says Daniel, "and mostly, they're around domestic violence."

That's why the group is sponsoring workshops to delve into the issue of domestic violence - what precipitates it, how to manage an escalating situation and how to nurture healthy relationships.

Kansas City proper isn't alone in this concern. For the Kansas City metro overall, the murder rate per 100,000 people was 8.4 in 2015, up from 6.6 in 2014, according to the FBI.

Killings up nationwide

Homicides have seen a dramatic uptick across the country in the past year.

There are competing theories as to why this has occurred, none completely reliable, according to a study from the National Institute of Justice released this summer.

Richard Rosenfeld, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri- St. Louis and author of the widely cited study, says the 17 percent hike in homicides in 56 of the nation’s largest cities in 2015 was nearly unprecedented. Rosenfeld explored reasons for the increase and ultimately speculated it could be the result of a so-called Ferguson Effect.

The Ferguson Effect — a controversial concept coined by St. Louis Police chief Sam Dotson in the wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in the city by the same name — suggests law enforcement may be holding back for fear of a Ferguson-like reaction.

But, Rosenfeld says, there isn't yet conclusive understanding of the numbers.

"Explanations," Rosenfeld writes in his report, "must await future research based on year-end crime data."

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or at lauraz@kcur.org.