KANSAS CITY — Kansas City suffered 110 homicides in 2009.
As far as the decade is concerned, that’s just a bit above average. As far as annual comparisons go, it’s a 13 percent decline from 2008, when gang warfare boosted the death toll to one of the city’s worst of recent years.
The victims were mostly young, mostly black, as in previous years.
But the city also buried four babies, several aspiring high school students and at least one great-grandparent. It lost a barber, a homeless man and business owners. Some victims were drug dealers or gang members. Still others, for unknown reasons, chose to shoot it out with police.
The list of victims contained more women and girls than usual. Meanwhile, the city’s typical hot spot for homicides, the East Patrol Division, cooled somewhat.
Kansas City’s percentage drop in homicides coincided with an average decrease across the nation of about 10 percent. Cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago recorded dips near the average. But other cities experienced huge reductions, including San Francisco at more than 50 percent. Washington, D.C., logged a 45-year low, and New York City reported an all-time low.
Other places, such as Baltimore, saw increases.
Kansas City police commanders welcomed the local drop but weren’t celebrating, especially since nonfatal shootings continued to pepper the city at an increasing rate.
Maj. Anthony Ell, who commands the East Patrol Division, said the level of gunfire in 2009 concerned him.
“An inch here or an inch there and the homicide total could have been the same as 2008,” he said. “I’m optimistic, but guarded about wanting to read too much into it.”
Dealing with gangs
Gang members killed some Kansas Citians last year, but not at the level of 2008, when retaliation shootings helped push deaths to a record-breaking figure of 22 in one month alone.
Drive-by shootings, often an indicator of gang activity, were down 2 percent through October, the most recent month for which statistics were available.
Still, Alvin Brooks, president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, said he knows of at least five 2009 homicides connected to the same feuding groups.
“I know of a kid in jail and people are taking off members of his family because they can’t get to him,” Brooks said. “There are still a lot of retaliation murders out there.”
Much of the city’s gang violence historically has occurred in the East Patrol Division, but the area saw a marked decrease in homicides. It had 38 killings, compared to 61 the previous year.
Ell, who commands the division, said the drop could be due to a greater focus on root causes and a city-funded group called Aim4Peace. The group started work in November 2008 to try to quell gang disputes and resolve ongoing feuds in the East Patrol’s area.
Brooks said his organization started two groups last summer to fight the generational aspect of violence. One group focuses on helping families who have sons or daughters in prison so that other relatives don’t follow the same path. Another group works with victims’ families to discourage retaliation.
“We’ve got a lot of unsolved homicides, which means we’ve got a lot of angry families out there,” he said. “They feel like no one’s doing anything.”
The irony is, Brooks said, that community members often won’t share information about homicides with police.
“The community needs to start talking,” he said. “Otherwise, it just keeps the killers on the streets.”
Detectives said they struggled more than ever in 2009 to get witnesses to cooperate.
“We do more interrogation of witnesses than anything,” Detective Everett Babcock said. “The suspects will often talk to us before the witnesses do.”
Homicide detectives solved 56 percent of the year’s killings, the same rate as 2008. They also solved 16 homicides from prior years.
Ell said he believes the city should continue to focus on root causes of homicides, including drug addiction and prostitution, to reduce the killing. He cited two women involved in prostitution who were killed in the Northeast area in separate homicides in 2009.
“If you solved the root cause of why they were involved in that lifestyle, those homicides don’t happen,” he said. “If you’re out on the street engaged in drugs or prostitution, it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens to you.”
Bad year for women
Twenty percent of last year’s victims were female.
That’s the third-worst percentage of the decade and a large jump from 2008, when females made up 12 percent of deaths.
At least nine of the women and girls were felled by bullets not intended for them.
One had left a nightclub, another was walking on a sidewalk, a third was standing at a bus stop, a fourth was driving home on a highway. Stray bullets killed each.
Others were shot accidentally by boyfriends who mishandled firearms.
Still other victims, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, died in the company of boyfriends who appeared to be the intended targets of angry gunmen.
Killings of females used to rank high on the solvability scale, police said, because many would involve domestic violence with a known suspect. Other times, the public outcry would help prompt witnesses and tipsters to come forward. But not so last year, police said.
Eight cases with female victims remain unsolved, investigators said, including the July 17 killing of Deanna Lieber, a Lawrence lawyer hit by a stray bullet on U.S. 71 after leaving Starlight Theatre.
Another stray-bullet case involved three gunmen firing at each other after leaving a nightclub on Southwest Boulevard.
Rebecca Chacon, 27, was getting into the driver’s seat of her car in the parking lot when a bullet struck her jaw. Prosecutors charged a man believed to have started the shooting, but the other two gunmen — including the one who fired the fatal bullet — remain free.
Chacon left a husband and three children: twin 8-year-old boys and a 4-year-old girl. Chacon’s mother, Rita Amparan, is raising the twins.
“The hardest thing I had to do was to explain that she wasn’t coming back,” Amparan said.
She said Chacon’s daughter looks just like Chacon did at that age. When Amparan sees her granddaughter putting on lip gloss, she remembers how Chacon also loved makeup as a youngster.
“She’d beg me to wear my lipstick,” Amparan said. “She’d say, ‘I promise not to go outside the lines.’ ”
All three grandchildren know their mother “lives in the sky,” but they often ask whether she could come down for a visit. Their wistful requests add to Amparan’s feelings of pain and loss.
She lost her own mother at age 9 and now prays she will live a long, healthy life so she can continue to care for her grandchildren. She is thankful for donations being taken through the Amparan Children Memorial Fund, c/o Credit Union of Johnson County, 6025 Lamar Ave., Mission, Kan. 66202.
“It’s so easy to get a gun and start shooting,” Amparan said. “The kids with these guns who think they’re cool — they don’t know how they’re destroying people’s lives.”