In the early morning hours on Sept. 30, 2009, SWAT teams readied themselves to kick in the front doors of some of the city's worst drug houses.
On their heels were a cadre of detectives from the Kansas City Police Department and lawmen from six federal agencies. At the SWAT team's all-clear, they were prepared to storm in and serve the pile of arrest warrants they'd amassed since January.
It was the beginning of a three-day violent crime sweep, one of KCPD's new tools in the fight against the city's murder rate.
By early fall of this year, 89 people had died violently within the city limits, according to KCPD records. Since then, police have slowed -- but not stopped -- the flow of homicides: 21 more people have been killed since that morning in late September. As of today, 2009 ends with 13 percent fewer killings than last year -- but still a 17 percent increase over 2007.
KCPD brass hatched the plan in August 2008 -- right around the time The Pitch took on the Killa City project. Summertime violence had escalated into a blood bath, primarily on the east side. With 22 homicides -- nearly one per day -- it was the single deadliest month in a decade. Four months later, a two-day sweep, the first of its kid, netted 108 arrests on 138 warrants.
View KCPD Violent Crime Sweep zones in a larger map
Sgt. Eric Greenwell leads the Career Criminal Section. It's a tight 21-member taskforce within the larger Violent Crimes Division that gathers information through confidential informants, covert tactics and surveillance, and then pools intelligences and resources from local and federal sources. Greenwell coordinates detectives from the KCPD and the Independence Police Department, and agents from the FBI, ATF, the U.S. Marshals Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. They answer to him.
"We have a relationship that's very unique to other cities across America," Greenwell says. "I don't think it's any secret to say some of the agencies have a hard time getting along. Because we're the local agency, and those agents are working under the authority of the KCPD, it takes all that away."
All agents involved are deputized by the FBI, which erases jurisdictional lines. Greenwell also enourages resource-sharing between agencies, by, for example, drawing ATF agents into an FBI bank robbery surveillance, even when bank robbery doesn't involve an ATF violation.
Greenwell also spearheads the sweeps. But first he has to figure out target areas. On the map of the city, KCPD crime analysts plot homicides, aggravated assaults, drive-by shootings, calls for service and citizen reports of drug houses. Greenwell aims the sweeps at these neighborhoods and fires.
According to KCPD press materials, "The four target areas comprise 4 percent of the city's land area, but have been responsible for 48 percent of the city's homicides, and 47 percent of drive-by shootings in 2009."
By Greenwell's count, 150 federal agents and 80 detectives were involved this year. The mission briefing was so large, they held it at the Police Academy auditorium. For three days, police put investigations on hold and focused all the resources and manpower they could muster into the sweep.
On September 30, they organized into 14 teams, flooded the streets and visited 250 addresses. They cleared 231 warrants, made 93 arrests, recovered 40 illegal handguns, and seized nearly $170,000 worth of drugs, property and cash.
They also re-canvassed neighborhoods looking for new intelligence on four homicides, chosen by unit commanders after Greenwell asked them: "If we had unlimited manpower for a day, which would you want us to go to?"
As of late December, those homicides -- Ahmed Johnson, Lamonte Curtis, Jazmine Stiggers and Larry Oates -- are open with unknown suspects, according to KCPD. Greenwell said he knows of at least one man who was arrested on an open or unsolved homicides case as a direct result of the violent crimes initiative.
Statistically speaking, late summer continues to be the city's most violent time. No one could explain why the sweep took place after the summer surge, rather than trying to head it off. Greenwell said it takes time to gather the manpower, resources, and statistics to hit the right areas hard. Capt. Rich Lockhart, of the KCPD's Media Unit, described the operation as a "trump card."
"You can't play it more than once," he said. "You got to make sure you play it at the right time."
That can be a hard fact to reconcile for people living in the neighborhoods -- the ones Greenwell calls "the good people." Several neighborhood association presidents contacted by The Pitch say the violence remains and that the streets don't feel much safer than they did earlier this year.
Still, they say, they welcome any help the police are offering -- including the sweeps.
"If you do that often enough, you're going to keep [crime] down," says Warren Watkins, Jr., president of the Wendell Phillips Neighborhood Association, which is at the heart of one eastside kill zone. "The crooks out there, they're going to back up a little bit. They're going to be careful. It's going to change."
"Maybe that sweep did some good," he said. "Then they got to keep doing it. And not once a year -- every quarter. If it worked, do it more."