Tuesday, September 21, 2021
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Community-engaged urban research aims to reduce crime

UMKC has outlined six goals in its strategic plan to ensure success. Goal three is to advance urban engagement and is defined in the Student Handbook found on UMKC’s website as “To become a model urban University by fully engaging with the Kansas City community to enhance education, public health, the arts and economic development.”

The department of criminal justice and criminology has found a way to engage with the community that can truly make a difference for the people of Kansas City.

Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker approached the University to become a partner in a focused deterrence program she wanted to establish – Kansas City’s No Violence Alliance. Focused deterrence programs aim to deter criminal activity by known offenders through not only enforcement, but opening channels of communication and offering social services where needed as well as utilizing the power of peer pressure. Focused deterrence programs have been successful in reducing crime in other cities, including Cincinnati, Boston and Indianapolis.

Drs. Andrew Fox and Ken Novak of the department of criminal justice and criminology are co-principal investigators in KC NoVA. Dr. Fox’s role has been to work with crime analysts to do social network analysis. He created networks of individuals who were socially connected through police data and were all involved in violence, either as persons who committed violent crimes (or were suspected) or were victims of violent crimes. Dr. Fox worked with information gathered by patrol officers – the people who are engaged with the community on a regular basis.

“The police department [has] these things called Field Interview Forms that, when a police officer interacts with people in the community and they’re not arresting anyone, but they’re just documenting who was there, they will fill out this Field Interview Form,” Fox said. “When a police officer stops a group of young men, he’ll fill out the FIF and write down who was there, and then it gets filed. Now we know that those individuals all know each other. We are collecting this relational information of who knows who’s been hanging out with who and you can put it all together and get a picture of what the social structure might look like.”

This group focus is what the program is all about. Law enforcement agencies have learned that stopping one criminal will not stop the crime. But criminals are just as prone to being pressured by their peers as anyone else.

Does this peer pressure work to reduce crime?

“We try to track that. We try to track contacts with the system before and contacts with the system after, but the bigger issue we’re concerned about is group-level accountability and not necessarily individual level,” said Department Chair Novak, who co-authored a review of the program’s first year. “The assumption is that … humans are social animals, that they care about their social network: their peers, their brothers, their cousins, their family … so NoVA is more about challenging the street code to get groups to avoid violence and to keep group members accountable for each other rather. We’re more concerned with whether groups desist from crime and that can transfer into overall crime rates.”

The group crime rate has shown some decrease. Those involved in the academic side of KC NoVA are leery of pointing to the program as being the cause of the decrease.

Novak thinks more time is needed “to make sure scientific protocol is followed, which means a long post-treatment time period to observe whether it’s just a natural ebb and flow in crime or whether there was an actual cause and effect.”

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