By Mary Wilson
The South Kansas City Alliance welcomed Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to their monthly meeting on Monday, January 12. Prior to being elected to her current position in November 2012, Peters Baker served in many capacities in the prosecutor’s office, working in nearly every unit.
“I love my job. I have a great, hard, lovely job,” said Peters Baker.The prosecutor’s office undertook an ambitious challenge upon the arrival of Peters Baker to establish an anti-violence movement in the Kansas City area, called the No Violence Alliance, or NoVA. Peters Baker said that NoVA is all about collaboration between law enforcement, prosecutors and the community.
“If anyone is under the impression that one person or one entity can get something done, you’re probably mistaken,” said Peters Baker. “My goal is to make sure I further my partnerships.”Peters Baker will be meeting with Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gordon and the KCK Chief of Police, due to the “imaginary line” that divides Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. She sees the importance of building the collaboration across state lines to share information.
“Criminals know no lines,” added Peters Baker. “The people that harm their community harm my community and I want to make sure that we are dealing with them the way we ought to. Sometimes, that is with a very firm hand. ”The major objective Peters Baker had in coming to the prosecutor’s office has been to address violence. While she has concerns in other crimes, such as stolen autos and burglaries, her main concern lies with violence, especially when it puts the community’s children in harm’s way.
Upon taking office, the homicide rate in Kansas City was at the top of the leaderboard nationwide, according to Peters Baker, competing often with Detroit and other cities known for violence. These statistics came as a shock to the prosecutor, who said that it seemed as if Kansas City was accepting of those numbers.“Every year, sometime in November, we’d hit that number 100,” said Peters Baker. “One-hundred homicides in Kansas City per year, and we’d go over it. I thought, that is just unacceptable. It’s wrong and it’s not who we are. It does not have to be who we are.”
She went to work to find a program that would best address Kansas City’s number one problem: violence. She sought a program that was evidence-based, studied by the academics and had proven results. That’s what she, along with Mayor Sly James and Chief of Police Darryl Forte, brought to Kansas City. After roughly two years into the anti-violence movement, at the end of 2014, Kansas City saw 77 homicides.“That’s great and I’m very proud of that,” said Peters Baker. “I’m also very disappointed in that number because 77 is still much too high.”
Peters Baker said that while the national homicide rate is roughly 4 per 100,000, Kansas City ranked at 23 per 100,000 in 2013. In 2014, Kansas City was around 16 per 100,000 homicides.“Any reduction is a reduction to applaud and be happy about,” said Peters Baker.
The downside to those statistics is that Peters Baker is dealing with a seven-year-old victim fighting for her life after being struck by bullets while driving down a Kansas City highway with her family. Another example is an unsolved homicide in KCK of a 7-month-old boy, and another of a ten-year-old girl remains unsolved. She also spoke of a two-year-old that lost his life after an act of child abuse by his caregiver.“He’s actually our first homicide of 2015,” said Peters Baker. “There’s more, but I guess what I have to tell you is that Kansas City seems like a really awful place to be a child. I can’t tell you how angry it makes me when children pay the price for our violence problem. I find it completely unacceptable.”
She added that in 2015, Kansas City as a whole has to do better than in 2014 despite the market improvement.“It is still not good enough,” Peters Baker said.
Peters Baker said that while the violence problem in Kansas City can feel a bit hopeless, it can be corrected. When a family is affected by violence, it impacts the community, which brought forth the KC NoVA effort.“We believe we can further reduce that number,” said Peters Baker.
The collaboration relies on prosecutors, police, the community and pastors, to deliver messages of hope and redemption. If hope and redemption are offered and not taken, Peters Baker said that her office is the next step.“If violence happens, it’s not just one person; everyone in that network is going to get hit,” said Peters Baker. “So we warn them. We bring these folks in that we have identified are engaged in a life of violence and we offer them another path.”
Social services workers are present to offer a real solution to violent offenders. Peters Baker said the main message is simple: don’t shoot people; don’t hurt people.“Some people need the help to get out of that cycle,” said Peters Baker. “Not everyone is going to listen to us, and that’s where the law enforcement side comes in. We’ve got to be tough and we’ve got to be ready to handle the kind of violence that happens in our city.”
Of the 77 homicides, Peters Baker’s office filed more murder in the first degree charges than any other prosecutor in Kansas City. She credits that to the collaboration brought forth by KC NoVA.
“Violence begets more violence,” said Peters Baker. “You’ve got to stop it before it begins, or there’ll be more violence. We need to intervene and let them know there’s another way.”
KC NoVA is supported by its partner agencies, which have donated personnel, time and equipment, as well as outside funding from local grant makers, including the Greater Kansas City LISC (Local Initiative Support Corp.) and Jackson County COMBAT.