Crime & Courts

Wichita’s violent crime rate double the national average. The city is getting help

Violent crimes happen in Wichita more than twice as often on average as they do around the rest of the country, according to the latest full year of statistics published by the FBI and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The Wichita Police Department cited that figure and other crime numbers in an application that ultimately got the city selected to participate in a national program aimed at driving down violent crime in places where it is significantly above the national average.

According to the application, Wichita has experienced a “precipitous increase” in violent crime over the past three years. Shootings have climbed steadily since 2014. Murders, rapes and aggravated assaults all ticked up between 2016 and 2018. And domestic violence “has risen sharply,” now accounting for nearly half of all aggravated assaults reported in the city.

“To make matters worse,” the police department’s application says, “Wichita PD is severely underfunded and understaffed” — about 650 officers for a city size that one study suggests should employ around 980.

The statistics paint a bleak picture of violence in Wichita as police continue to battle rising crime rates fueled in recent years by drugs, gangs and domestic arguments. Yet, the swell is a far cry from crime levels seen in the 1990s before a law enforcement crackdown on drugs, gangs and racketeering.

Nationwide the crime rate has remained relatively low, thanks to 30 years of downward trends.

“Overall across the country crime is still continually going down. We’re seeing just a few spikes,” Wichita State University professor of criminal justice Michael Birzer said.

So far the Wichita Police Department, under Chief Gordon Ramsay’s leadership, has introduced a series of strategies it says is already working to counter the boost in violence, including hiring crime analysts, centralizing Violent Crimes Task Force members and asking gun dealers and owners to save spent ammunition so it is easier to identify firearms, especially stolen ones, used in crimes.

It hopes participation in the national program, the Department of Justice National Safety Partnership, will do even more to curb the local trend.

The three-year program, established though executive order in June 2017, will provide training and technical assistance to the department at no cost. Wichita is among 40 participating cities total, and 10 selected to join this year.

“Many of these grants now, they’re based on what policing considers evidence-based data. So it’s not like they’re just applying for these things and hoping they work. They pretty much know going in what the issues are, based on a lot of sophisticated technology that the Wichita Police Department has now to be able to geographically track offenders and track where those crimes are occurring,” Birzer said.

“Absolutely, I think that this is a good start.”

Shootings nearly doubled

Nationwide there were an average of 382.9 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2017, according to FBI statistics. Wichita logged nearly three times that — 1,019 violent crimes for every 100,000 people, or about 11 per day — that same year.

Three of the four types of violent crimes tracked by the KBI and FBI ticked up from 2016 to 2018. Homicides, including police-involved killings, surged 37.5%; rape rose 25%; and aggravated assaults increased by 13%, according to crime stats published online by the Wichita Police Department.

Shootings almost doubled between 2014 and 2018, to an average of nearly three a week. Meanwhile, aggravated assaults and batteries swelled to 3,015 incidents in 2017 — a whopping 75.6% of all violent crimes reported that year. That’s about eight a day on average.

“The reality is that there is a high level of gun violence. And it’s an issue. But it’s an community-wide issue,” Wichita police spokesman Officer Paul Cruz said, echoing the department’s sentiment that cops are only a small part of addressing violent crime problem.

Rise ‘not easily explained’

Local authorities have long blamed the city’s rising crime on drugs and, more recently, on untreated or under-treated psychiatric conditions.

At recent drug and substance abuse and mental health summits, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett cited statistics to illustrate how deep the problem is: Seven of 10 inmates housed in the local jail struggle with drug addiction — for many methamphetamine is the drug of choice — and nearly as many either have a diagnosed mental illness or are suspected of having one. Just over a tenth of felony cases charged in Sedgwick County District Court involve at least one count of meth possession.

But domestic violence — attacks between family members or intimate partners — is also taking a toll, according to the police department. Abusers may attack their victims repeatedly, driving up the assault and battery and associated victimization rates.

Often 10-15% of areas in a community account for a disproportionate amount of its overall crime rate, and roughly 10-15% of offenders commit around half of all misdeeds, Birzer said.

In 2017, Wichita police investigated about a fifth of the state’s murders (19.8%), more than a quarter of the rapes (27.5%) and just more than a third of the robberies (34.6%) and aggravated assaults (35.1%), according to the KBI’s 2017 Kansas Crime Index. Wichita has about 13 percent of the state’s population.

When the report was released last summer, KBI Director Kirk Thompson said the state’s rising crime rate “is not easily explained,” but it is thought to be influenced by drug abuse and violence, gang violence and social issues such as poverty.

‘Paying off’

To illustrate what it views as positive impacts of initiatives already implemented, the police department points to this year’s crime numbers. As of June 9, homicides, rapes and robberies were all down year to date over 2018, while aggravated assaults remained flat.

Gun violence has also dropped: There were 51 shootings through June 9, compared to 164 for all of 2018. At last year’s rate, the city might have expected to see about 72 shootings by the end of the first full week of June.

For Ramsay, the decrease is proof that department efforts already in motion are “paying off.”

“Our homicide numbers are down. Our shootings are down. And we want to continue to push those numbers in a way that is helpful for our community,” Ramsay said during a news conference earlier this month where he announced Wichita’s selection for the National Safety Partnership.

Other cities involved in the program are already reporting successes. The National Safety Partnership’s latest annual report is filled with glowing reviews.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the police department recovered more guns in the first seven months of 2017 than it did in all of 2016, homicides dropped 16% and robberies reached an 11-year low. Targeted enforcement in a roughly 2-square-mile area of New Orleans, with a disproportionately high crime rate driven by narcotics trafficking and abuse, saw a 40% reduction in violence in the first 18 months of the police department’s participation in the program.

The St. Louis, Missouri Police Department reduced its backlog of ballistics analysis and is now able to complete a preliminary analysis on evidence within a day or two. Compton, California saw a 40% decrease in homicides in 2017, twice the drop seen in the rest of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs’ Department’s patrol areas.

Violent crime decreased by 29% in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the third quarter of 2017 and shots fired in the city’s downtown district were down by half. Jackson, Mississippi, saw a nearly 10% year-over-year drop in violent crime after its police department became a member of the National Safety Partnership’s pilot program, the Violence Reduction Network, in 2016.

“You’re going to love it,” a Jackson police clerk said of the program.

Right now it’s unclear exactly how the Wichita Police Department will use the Public Safety Partnership because the program is tailored to the needs of each individual city, although it does draw on projects that have been successful in other cities.

The program’s goals of driving down gun violence, gang activity and drug trafficking indicate those areas will be the general focus.

“The big effort that many cities have had success with is ... using data to reduce crime — that is focusing on the worst offenders and their tactics,” analyzing data to predict crime and using technology to improve crime reduction efforts, Ramsay said during the news conference.

“I am really eager and optimistic to experiment,” he said.

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