Springfield on pace to shatter homicide record in 2020
Editor's note: While there were 15 killings this year that police initially described as homicides, the police chief said Sunday that four of those deaths likely will not meet the Uniform Crime Reporting definition of a homicide.
It might seem like 10 years ago, but it was only November when Gov. Mike Parson gathered the mayors of Missouri's largest cities to come up with a plan.
Before COVID-19 and George Floyd, Missouri's public officials felt like gun violence was the state's most pressing issue.
Parson and the mayors of Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia and Springfield agreed to push three seemingly bipartisan initiatives aimed at reducing the growing number of shootings and homicides in the state: put more money into witness protection programs, make it more difficult for teens and domestic abusers to get guns, and improve access to mental health services.
Eight months later, it appears they've gone about one for three — at least as far as Springfield is concerned.
The legislature did not pass laws to fund witness protection or tighten gun regulations this session, but there is a new pilot program in Springfield that has local leaders feeling optimistic about the future of mental health services.
And the other items could see new life, as Parson has called a special session starting July 27 to address violent crime.
While other crises have captured the headlines in 2020, gun violence hasn't gone away in Springfield.
The number of aggravated assaults involving a firearm in Springfield more than doubled between 2014 and 2018. And with 15 homicides so far in 2020, Springfield is on pace to shatter its previous yearly record of 16 set in 2012, 2014 and 2018.
Of the 15 homicides this year, 13 involved a gun.
Police say that of the 15 deaths this year that were initially described as homicides, only 11 will likely end up meeting the official defintion of a homicide because some were either manslaughter or legally justified killings.
Budget could limit what police can do
Police Chief Paul Williams pointed to two major explanations for why shootings have been increasing in Springfield over the last six years. First off, a 2017 law made it easier for citizens to obtain and carry guns. And secondly, the chief said people have become too quick to resort to violence to settle conflicts.
It appears there's not much police can do about either.
With the Republican-controlled legislature not likely to undo legislation that did away with the permit requirement for carrying a concealed firearm in Missouri and no way to mandate a city-wide counseling session, police have turned to alternative solutions — but the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has further muddied the waters.
"We’re trying to do everything we can to stem the tide," Williams said.
In December, Williams pitched City Council on several technological advancements aimed at reducing crime, including the ShotSpotter system which would use sensors across the city to pinpoint the exact location of gunfire and allow police to respond to the scene faster.
But much has changed since December.
Momentum has been building in recent months for the city to purchase body cameras for Springfield officers as citizens across the country push for increased police accountability in response to the Floyd death in Minnesota at the hands of a police officer.
City Council has indicated it supports a plan to use money from the pothole fund to buy body cameras for police.
And with the economic impact of the COVID-19 likely leading to a pared-down budget next year, the police department probably can't expect the funds to be around for body cameras and expensive technology like ShotSpotter.
So, Williams is asking citizens to be vigilant about calling 911 when they think they hear gunshots, and the department is focusing its investigative efforts on locking up repeat violent crime offenders.
Professor will study Springfield crime stats
The police department is also trying an academic approach to reduce gun violence in Springfield.
Police have enlisted the help of William Sandel, an assistant professor in Missouri State University's Criminology and Criminal Justice department, to research trends in Springfield to look for patterns.
That information could help the police department deploy officers when and where they can make the biggest impact on reducing crime.
"Every city, every town, every rural community has its own ins and outs when it comes to crime," Sandel said. "As a criminologist, you really have to be open to what's out there."
Sandel, a former research specialist at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, said having outsiders look at crime data can be ideal since they can approach the topic with a different perspective.
He said part of his research will focus on stolen guns.
Sandel said he began his research during the spring semester and did not know when he might have results to share.
"We're still gathering data," Sandel said. "It's a process to get everything."
Crisis center generates optimism
After a man who reportedly had mental illnesses killed 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, lawmakers increased funding for mental health care as an attempt to stop the next mass shooting.
In Missouri, that funding turned into a community mental health liaison program which enlisted a small group of paid civilians to help connect citizens with resources in the area.
In 2016, a veteran Springfield Police Department officer called the mental health liaison "one of the best resources we've ever had" because having someone dedicated to helping people with their mental health issues allowed officers to spend more time elsewhere.
But the mental health liaisons quickly became overloaded and they don't work 24 hours a day, so often it's police officers in Springfield who are called on to deal with people in crisis. And their options had been pretty limited — jail or the emergency room.
In May, Burrell Behavioral Health opened a 24-hour Rapid Access Unit at 800 S. Park Ave. in Springfield to serve as a pilot program for the sort of mental health services the governor and mayors discussed last fall.
The center's medical director said the Rapid Access Unit serves as an "entry point" for adults in need of psychiatric or substance abuse treatment.
Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said the Rapid Access Unit gives officers another place to take people in crisis, freeing them up to do other police work aimed at driving down crime.
"The whole purpose is to try to get the appropriate treatment for someone as opposed to directly sending them to jail if they’re picked up by law enforcement," McClure said.
The public-private partnership is unique to Springfield, but McClure said other cities in Missouri will likely adopt a similar model if the Rapid Access Unit works in Springfield.
"If that in fact is successful, and we believe it will be, then I think it’s a model the state could put into place throughout the state," McClure said.
Other cities make their own laws
Domestic violence has long been a driver of violent crime in Springfield, with domestic assaults at times accounting for about a third of all reported violent crime in the city.
Taking guns away from people found guilty of domestic violence emerged as a priority from the meetings between the governor and mayors last fall as a way to possibly prevent shootings. But nothing got done at the state level.
The local governments in Kansas City and St. Louis enacted ordinances, however, that made it illegal for people with a history of domestic violence or active orders of protection against them to carry concealed weapons.
Those local laws in Kansas City and St. Louis mirror federal law already in place, but proponents there said the federal law was rarely enforced so having a city ordinance in place would give authorities another avenue.
In Springfield, Mayor McClure said he might be open to a similar city ordinance but only after thorough research into the legality of enacting a city law that might conflict with state law.
"There’s a lot of work that would have to be done on that and a lot of discussion before we would ever go there," McClure said.
Homicides tracked in different ways
For historical data, the Springfield Police Department tracks its homicides based on the Uniform Crime Reporting definition, which excludes things like justifiable killings.
So while, there have been 15 homicides reported in Springfield so far this year, that number could actually go down if there aren't any additional killings and some of the open cases are ruled justified by the prosecutor.
In some years, like 2018 for example, police investigated more than 16 cases that were initially called homicides but some ended up not meeting the UCR definition by the time the year was over.
Some of the 15 killings so far in 2020 might not end up meeting the UCR definition of a homicide, but Springfield is still on a historic pace for homicides.
Here is the list of people who have died in homicides in 2020, which includes four people who were killed the same night when a gunman opened fire in March at a Kum & Go convenience store:
- July 2: Darrell Gott Jr.
- June 26: Kenneth Clay
- June 23: Alexander Goeman
- June 21: David Saunders
- June 17: Joshua Woods
- June 16: Krista McKinnon
- June 3: Joshua Reichard
- April 30: Tyree Crenshaw
- April 19: Caelan Troy
- March 15: Christopher Walsh, Troy Rapp, Shannon Perkins, Matthew Hicks-Morris
- March 8: James Simmons
- March 2: Tammy Colbert