Using Research to Reduce Violent Crime

From left: Detective Nathan Kinate, Detective Brad Bailey, Captain Joe McHale, Dr. Andrew Fox, Dr. Ken Novak, Sergeant Chris Young, Detective Maurice Oatis and Detective Michael Lenoir. Photo by Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Direct involvement by UMKC faculty aids No-Violence Alliance

An ongoing law enforcement effort to rethink strategies to reduce violent crime in the Kansas City area has its own secret weapon: UMKC.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, part of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, is intimately involved in the Kansas City No Violence Alliance (NoVA). NoVA is a 2-year-old multi-agency effort to reduce gun-related violence.

Chancellor Leo E. Morton serves on NoVA’s governing board, and UMKC faculty members and graduate students are embedded in NoVA’s effort to implement a crime-prevention approach known as “focused deterrence,” which helps police look beyond individual criminals to the criminals’ entire social networks.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police this month called out UMKC’s relationship with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department through NoVA when it awarded the department its 2014 bronze medal for Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Award. The award recognizes law enforcement agencies that demonstrate excellence in conducting and using research to improve police operations and public safety.

UMKC became involved with NoVA at the very beginning. In 2012, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker came to Ken Novak, chair of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department, to ask how UMKC could help curb a rising tide of violence on Kansas City-area streets. She’d heard about focused deterrence and its success in other cities and wanted to try it here. It just so happened that Andrew Fox had just taken a job as a professor in UMKC’s criminology department, and Fox happened to have experience with focused deterrence.

The approach calls for conducting an audit of violent criminals, mapping their connections and using those connections to encourage criminals to police themselves. If a crime is committed, the police can then go after the perpetrator’s entire group – nabbing members for even petty offenses.

“The fact of the matter is, the group members we’re talking about aren’t afraid of police – and they’re not too scared of the prospect of getting arrested. Going to jail is just part of doing business,” Novak said. “But they’re scared to death of people in their social network, like friends, cousins, etc. People in their social network are more effective at regulating their behavior than the criminal justice system.”

In 2013 Fox began helping police conduct social network audits of the area’s criminals. Forty groups or gangs were identified and mapped so the nuances of their leaders and connections to each other could be easily understood.

“Violence spreads much like disease in the network,” Fox said.

As part of focused deterrence, law enforcement reach out to key people in criminal groups through quarterly meetings to get out the message that violence will not be tolerated. If one person in the group missteps, they are told, everyone in the group will be targeted for everything from parole violations to parking tickets to unpaid child support.

“The law enforcement representatives will say, ‘The next group to commit a homicide, we’re going to focus all our law enforcement on all of your group,’ ” Novak said.

The effort also involves offering group members access to social services to help them escape a life of crime.

Novak and Fox are embedded researchers in the project, which is very different from the neutral, observe-only role academics usually take. In this case, they are purposely involved in policy and decision making, such as participating in planning meetings and conducting training with criminal justice officials. This model of “action research” is endorsed and recommended by the US Department of Justice.

The result for the researchers is a first-hand grasp of the process as it unfolds, which they hope provides insight for their research.

“It may be the wave of the future for criminologists,” Novak said.

Focused deterrence has helped reduce crime in Boston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and High Point, N.C. Novak and Fox say it’s too early to tell whether declining violent crime numbers in Kansas City so far this year can be credited with its implementation here.

But Joseph McHale, a captain in the Kansas City Police Department who manages the NoVA program in that department, said he’s certain a 37 percent reduction in homicides is directly connected to NoVA’s efforts and its work with UMKC.

“We are getting ahead of violence and using intelligence in a way that we never have before,” McHale said.

In the past, a lot of crime fighting has been based on tradition or gut. But through this project, the UMKC professors are helping the area’s top crime fighters – along with the street-level cops – understand the importance of valid and reliable data in making decisions.

Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, said the result will be a long-term change.

“We don’t look at it as a project or a specific effort,” he said. “It’s more a shift in the way law enforcement is approaching the problem of violence.”

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