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It was safe to assume that this year would be just about as bloody. And we had a relatively new tool that would help us report on the city's homicides as they happened. We had started our news blog, Plog at pitch.com, in April 2007, and by last December it was a well-established news source separate from the print edition — but it was generally a loosely organized group effort. At the beginning of this year, we put a full-time staffer in charge of the Plog: Justin Kendall, who had been a staff writer with the paper since 2005.
Kendall decided that Plog would cover each of this year's homicides. He reported the news of each death, without commentary, based on police reports and other publicly available information. He posted photos of victims and suspects if we could find them. And he included a Google street view. At first, he was simply taking advantage of Google's technology to make it easier for readers to visualize the location of a crime. But one thing quickly became apparent: It's one thing to read a street address in a crime report, but it's another thing to look at a photograph of the house, the sidewalk, the block. We immediately saw our city in a new and haunting way.
Kendall's write-ups were straightforward, but we allowed ourselves one Pitch indulgence: We called the project Killa City. We used the street slang partly because that's what some people were already calling our town and because we wanted something provocative — something that readers who weren't immersed in the violence might actually pay attention to. We braced for a backlash, but other than reaction to the name, we didn't know what to expect.
Our first post was logged on January 6.
"Rodney Kemp, a 37-year-old black male, is 2009's first homicide. Police found him last night at 7:30 in front of 7430 College Avenue with 'life-threatening injuries' to his upper body. He was transported to a hospital where he later died.
"According to case.net, Kemp lived at 7429 College Avenue, which was listed as his address when he pleaded guilty in 1999 to a misdemeanor charge of operating commercial equipment without a license, for which he paid a $300 fine. Updates when we have them." (Later, after records adjustments in the medical examiner's office, Kemp was officially ruled the fourth homicide of 2009.)
Few Plog readers seemed to care about the name. Instead, Killa City took on a life of its own — and that's the story Kendall tells in this year-end wrap-up. For him, the project soon expanded; Killa City wasn't just Kansas City, Missouri — it was also Raytown; Kansas City, Kansas; and Overland Park. For a while, Kendall says, it seemed like a new homicide announcement awaited him every morning when he turned on his computer.
Sometimes he began to think that he was becoming desensitized. "Reading news stories, there's this feeling of 'It can't happen to me,' " Kendall notes. "But then I'd look up a victim's Facebook page or read a comment from a loved one. People didn't feel distant anymore. You see the reactions from people who loved them, and you see pictures of them when they were alive, laughing with their friends or whatever, and it just became so real."