Prosecutor stresses need for community trust

By Mike Genet

Beyond the pandemic, 2020 also proved to be a fatally violent year in Jackson County, with a record number of homicides in Kansas City.

County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, recently elected to a third full term, said that just as notable as the 176 homicides (according to KSHB-TV news’ homicide tracker, and possibly higher pending investigations) is the continuously high number of non-fatal shootings and a low clearance rate of such crimes. However, she said her office doesn’t see those crimes at close to the same rate in other communities around Eastern Jackson County, and more of those crimes get cleared, an indication perhaps of better rapport between law enforcement and citizens.

Jean Peters Baker

Baker said the number of non-fatal shootings with some kind of the injury – referred to as “bullet-to-skin” – was “well over” 600 in Kansas City, with a 19 percent clearance rate, according to the prosecutor’s office.

That clearance rate, said prosecutor’s office spokesperson Mike Mansur, is consistent with the previous few years.

“Those are really shocking numbers,” Baker said, “so, it’s a tremendous rate of people that don’t get to see justice.”

“We can debate about why that is,” Baker said, “but it’s a waste of energy (to just assign blame), and it’s something we’ve got to fix.”

Independence, with a population less than one-fourth of Kansas City, recorded 12 homicides in 2020. While violent crime – homicide, robbery, aggravated assault and sexual assault – rose 11 percent in Independence from 2019 to 2020, the total offense number was 629 last year, with a clearance rate thus far of 42 percent, according to the crime dashboard maintained by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which is dependent on agency reporting. 

Meanwhile, Kansas City’s violent crime rose 1.6 percent in 2020, but with more than 10 times the number of offenses as Independence and a clearance rate of 21 percent.

“When you look at Eastern Jack, they don’t experience the same kind of increase,” Baker said. “It’s still a terrible number, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t speak to the same level.” 

Violent crime numbers actually rose in Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and unincorporated Jackson County, according to the Highway Patrol dashboard, but with clearance rates much closer to Independence than Kansas City and total offenses at far lower rates. Baker said she believes that shows greater community cooperation with law enforcement. 

“You feel the difference in the different communities. It’s about a trust in the law enforcement system,” Baker said. “The wider that divide is, the higher the homicide rate, the non-fatal shooting rate.”

While Raytown has 31 percent clearance for violent crimes in 2020, the total number of offenses went down 10 percent there.

Other numbers around Eastern Jackson County:

• Blue Springs went up 44 percent to 105 violent offenses, with a 43 percent clearance rate. 

• Lee’s Summit went up 24 percent to 102 offenses, with 44 percent clearance.

• Jackson County went up 55 percent to 93 offenses, with 37 percent clearance.

• Blue Springs had two homicides, Raytown three and Jackson County one in 2020 – a large drop for Raytown.

Mansur said assaults are always the most difficult for any jurisdiction to clear. Overall, Eastern Jackson County is at about at the national average for clearance, Baker said, and no matter how they compare, her office hopes to improve all those rates. Too often, she said, one violent crime is spurred by a previous unsolved crime.

“Do people trust the system, to tell you all aspects (of a crime); do they trust that law enforcement can protect you,” Baker said. “It’s incumbent upon people like me and police chiefs to say, ‘What can we do to help that.’”

Child abuse cases are part of the equations with trust and clearance, and Baker said, and they often are underreported.

“When someone makes a choice to report … there’s other types of crimes that, as horrible as they are, they go underreported,” Baker said. “Sometimes people fear for their own safety.”

While debating on who’s to blame for uncleared cases can be fruitless, she said, figuring out how to fix that isn’t.

“We need to look at why that is and try to fix it,” Baker said, “because the more legitimate the system is, the less violence there is.”