KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Killings in Kansas City are happening at an alarming rate, and police and residents say the slayings can be traced to the same urban maladies that have plagued the city for years.
With 21 homicides in August — a record for a single month — 2008 could become the deadliest year this decade for this Midwest city. So far, 103 killings have occurred here.
Detectives and people who live in neighborhoods infected with violence say years of economic depression and failed education are at the heart of the homicide surge.
"I think the challenges with this problem are bigger than the police department," said Kansas City police Maj. Anthony Ell, commander of the violent crimes division. "Many of the homicides are just the result of a breakdown of a whole bunch of other things going on."
Unemployment, lack of education, poor anger-management and conflict-solving skills and easy access to guns consistently emerge as contributing factors to the killings, he said.
The city's homicide rates in the last six years have surpassed or neared the 100 mark. The 127 killings in 2005 were the most for any year this decade. But 2008 could top that.
City leaders and concerned residents have tried for years to get a handle on the problem. But marches, campaigns encouraging witnesses to talk and comprehensive city plans have yielded more frustration than lasting solutions.
"We cannot keep going the way we're going in our community because every year we will see the same numbers or similar numbers" of homicides, Ell said.
Most of the killings are happening on the city's economically and academically troubled east side. Residents forced to cope with joblessness and failed schools are increasingly resorting to desperate measures, police say.
That's what former police officer and Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks thinks happened to a teenager he was mentoring, 18-year-old Vincent Williams, whose Sept. 23 shooting death pushed Kansas City's homicides to 100.
Williams had dropped out of high school and couldn't read, write or do math. But he had proven to be a hard worker mowing yards. Brooks, a longtime community activist, had spoken to the teen about a lead on a job six days before he was killed.
Police say Williams tried to rob a convenience store at gunpoint and was killed by a clerk.
"Here was a kid who tried so hard," Brooks said. "I believe he just gave up hope and went to the extreme for survival.
"Vincent didn't fail himself. We failed him, the system failed him. There are a lot of Vincent Williamses out there in urban America."
Most of the homicide victims — 68 of them — have been black males.
"Maybe if we had more jobs, we wouldn't have this shooting and killing," said Opal King, who helps lead a Caring Community group on the east side that assists families with employment, housing and education. "It seems like everything is falling on these black males 17 and up."
Three of this year's homicide cases involved multiple victims, including a still-unsolved triple shooting in April.
Cab driver Terence Timmons, 44, who was slain last month, appears to have been the target of robbers. His wife, Lisa, called the unsolved shooting a "useless killing" and one that likely was carried out by a young person who lacks hope and doesn't value his own life.
"I believe the youth feel like they have no choice," she said. "They feel like all of their opportunities have been snatched from them."
Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser has formed a task force that will come up with a plan for improving economic conditions in the city's distressed areas. There's "probably nothing more dangerous than a 19-year-old man in the urban core who believes he's hopeless," he said.
Brooks, a task force member, hopes the group addresses education, too.
The 76-year-old activist said he's tired of seeing young lives lost. He's spoken at 37 funerals for homicide victims this year.
"I talk mostly to the young folks," Brooks said. "I tell them that God didn't take (the victims) out, that it's an evil side of life."
Then, he leaves them with a haunting image.
"I tell them to picture their mother or grandmother on the front row of a church or funeral home grieving for them."