2023 COMBAT Symposium Recap

COMBAT Impact Symposium: Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker welcomes attendees to the symposium
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker welcomes the attendees to the day-long symposium.
“Together, we are going to write the next chapter of COMBAT’s history. We want it to be a story not of war being waged in our community but of doing more to make this a more peaceful community.” 
— COMBAT Symposium History Presentation

Joe Loudon • COMBAT Communications Administrator

(Event Date • Wednesday, June 21, 2023)

The day began with a look back—a brief presentation about COMBAT’s origins.

Jackson County was ahead of its time—and the rest of the nation—in 1989, when it stopped viewing drug abuse and crime as only legal issues. While America was escalating the “War On Drugs” in ’89, Jackson County declared a “violent public health epidemic,” then became the first jurisdiction in the United States to adopt a tax dedicated to holistically reducing addiction and drug-related crime.

But the 2023 COMBAT Impact Symposium concentrated primarily on moving forward.

Agencies receiving COMBAT funding were encouraged to collaborate more through the Striving To Reduce Violence In Neighborhoods (STRiVIN’) initiative. Their input was also sought about how to better confront two 21st Century crises, one related to COMBAT’s anti-violence mission and the other its drug abuse prevention mission: gun violence and fentanyl-related overdoses.

More than 150 people attended the day-long symposium, which the COMBAT administrative staff hosted at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center in Kansas City. Invitations were sent exclusively to agencies providing COMBAT-supported prevention and treatment programs; each police department in the county and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office; and COMBAT commissioners and County Legislators, as well as other elected officials. Beginning this year, all agencies receiving COMBAT funding are contractually required to participate in the STRiVIN’ initiative.

STRiVIN’—More Than 1,000 Referrals Submitted

The symposium featured an overview of STRiVIN’, focusing specifically on the STRiVIN’ Social Services Referral application. COMBAT launched the referral program in Raytown in 2021 before expanding to all five STRiVIN’ areas last year.

Just two weeks prior to the symposium, the 1,000th referral was submitted online.

Violent crime data-generated “heat maps” were used to determine where to establish STRiVIN’ areas, starting with the south Kansas City neighborhood of Ruskin Heights in 2015. Today, through the referral system COMBAT is now collecting a different type of data—data about the types of social services individuals and families are needing.

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STRiVIN' Referral Chart

SERVICES NEEDED — Of the 1,032 referrals made through the STRiVIN' Social Services Referral platform, 440—42.6%—were made, at least in part, due to the individual or family needed assistance related to trauma. The next four leading assistance types were based on economic struggles: Employment (23.6%), Housing (23.3%), Utility Assistance (21.5%) and Income (19.5%). Because one referral might include multiple services (e.g. one person needing housing and income assistance), the percentages listed here exceed 100%.

“We’ve long known from our STRiVIN’ meetings that a lot of the drug abuse and violence in a neighborhood can be traced back to untreated trauma,” COMBAT Executive Director Vince Ortega said following the symposium. “That was based primarily on anecdotes agencies would share in the meetings. But now with the referral system in place, we have the data to reinforce why we are putting so much emphasis on trauma-informed training and trauma-informed care.”

The chart above also reflects the economic hardships many of those being referred are experiencing. These struggles have prompted University Health/Truman Medical Center (UH/TMC) to frequently submit STRiVIN’ Referrals as part of Project RISE.

COMBAT provided the funding to get Project RISE up and running in 2019 to deal with the psychological trauma a gunshot wound can inflict. However, Project RISE staff, including the psychologist overseeing the program, have made referrals to get gunshot wound survivors economic assistance not available through UH/TMC. As the COMBAT symposium STRiVIN’ presentation noted, “A person can not focus on their long-term mental or physical wellbeing if they are having a daily struggle meeting their basic needs.”

Ultimately, the goal of the STRiVIN’ referral program is to assist enough individuals and families to not only help turn their lives around but to improve the quality of life in entire neighborhoods—a goal spelled out in the symposium presentation: “We want people to get what could be life-changing or even life-saving assistance… for their benefit… for their next door neighbor’s benefit… for the whole neighborhood’s benefit…”

Gun Violence—No Easy Answers

The first of the symposium’s open discussion topics centered around gun violence in Jackson County.

Although homicides, rightfully so, garner the most attention, there were also 3,061 non-fatal shootings in the county from the start of 2017 through the end of 2022—an annual average, during that six-year period, of 510 shootings in which someone survived a “bullet-to-skin” injury. (A study revealing the high likelihood of survivors being shot again and later becoming a homicide victim prompted COMBAT to start Project RISE.)

Non-Fatal Shootings In Jackson County

With these statistics in mind, COMBAT staff asked symposium attendees for suggestions about how to more effectively reduce gun violence in Jackson County. But the staff stressed not fixating on issues “beyond our control,” such as calls for new state or federal legislation. Therefore, the question COMBAT posed featured this ALL CAPS caveat:

What more can we do—that is IN OUR CONTROL—to reduce gun violence in our community?

“On the surface that seems like a relatively simple question,” said Branden Mims, executive director for Greater Impact, the hub agency for COMBAT’s Midtown STRiVIN’ neighborhood. “But when you start to think about what is ‘in our control,’ among the people in this room, there aren’t many easy answers.”

Assigned seating at the symposium was intended to allow for a variety of viewpoints at each table among police officers, treatment providers, prevention program directors and others. There were some reoccurring themes among the gun violence suggestions:

  • Focusing more on non-violent conflict resolution
  • Trying to reach children at “younger and younger ages.”
  • “Addressing childhood trauma, creating a safe space for kids to come forward—establishing trust.”
  • “Put more resources into kids not labeled as ‘high risk’ or the ‘problem.’”
  • Recognizing that social media “creates conflict.”
  • Forming a “panel of youth that are from a variety of backgrounds and asking them what they need.”
  • “Safety prevention for adults—properly storing guns in the home.”
  • Gun buy-back programs.
  • “Passing out free gun locks—making them more accessible.”
  • Download All The Gun Violence Notes/Suggestions Attendees Submitted

Fentanyl—How To Spread The Word

Crack cocaine was frequently cited as the biggest drug problem in Jackson County in 1989. Last week’s symposium dwelled on one of the deadliest drug trends in recent years, the illicit use of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Fentany Risk

COMBAT has been trying to sound the alarm about the danger fentanyl poses through its website, social media and a brochure: Get The Facts. Spread The Word. Warn Those You Know & Love! The prevalence of fentanyl in Jackson County was reflected in four key points made during the symposium:

  • “If you can see it, it can kill you.” Just a two milligram dose of fentanyl—0.00007 ounces—can be lethal. That’s about one-sixth the weight of a typical housefly.
  • In just one investigation conducted in 2022, the COMBAT-funded Jackson County Drug Task Force seized 22 pounds of fentanyl—enough fentanyl for approximately 5 million lethal doses.
  • Of the fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills the Drug Enforcement Agency lab tested in 2022, 60% contained more than two milligrams of the fentanyl.
  • According to the Jackson County Health Department, one in five fatal overdoses in the county is a child under 15 years old.

Lethal Dose Of Fentanyl On A Penny CoinStating that “prevention starts with at least getting the word out,” COMBAT staff asked those attending the symposium two communications-based questions: 1) What messaging targeting adults can we use to help reduce fentanyl overdoses? 2) What messaging targeting youth can we use to help reduce fentanyl overdoses?

Their responses included both potential taglines/hashtags and preventive programming suggestions:

  • Based on the graphic showing a lethal speck of fentanyl on a penny: “#APennyForYourLife.”
  • “Do you trust your dealer with your life?”
  • “Are you willing to bet your life?”
  • “Your first time could be your last time.”
  • More programs educating both youth and adults about fentanyl and counterfeit pills. Make them better aware of the danger of taking prescription medications not prescribed for them, especially if this “medication” was obtained from someone else who might be passing along fake pills: “Your friend is not your pharmacist.”
  • Teaching youth how to better cope with stress and anxiety, rather than taking drugs.
  • Increased distribution of Narcan and teaching people how to use it during an overdose.
  • Focus on harm reduction, including urging those using drugs or those who know them to have Narcan available when drugs are being used. Saving the person’s life during an overdose is obviously more important—at that moment—than trying to convince them to seek treatment for their substance use disorder: “You can’t send a message to a dead person.”
  • Download All The Fentanyl Notes/Suggestions Attendees Submitted

COMBAT staff gave a “homework assignment” to program providers who work with youth: “Conduct focus groups, so we can hear directly from kids. We need to hear from them. What do they have to say and what do they believe other kids will listen to about these life-and-death issues?”
“Overall, I was very pleased with the turnout and thoughtful participation we had at the symposium,” COMBAT Director Ortega said. “We really want to take the STRiVIN’ initiative to the next level, increase participation and expand into other neighborhoods. And these were the first discussions we've had about gun violence and fentanyl. Those will be continued.”


Presentations form the COMBAT Symposium are available to download.

A Look Back As We Move ForwardPresentation_Button_History» Power Point Presentation  » PDF

& Social Services Referral InitiativePresentation_Button_STRIVIN» Power Point Presentation   » PDF

Gun Violence
What More (In Our Control) Can We Do?Presentation_Button_Gun_Violence» Power Point Presentation   » PDF

Spreading the Word, Sounding The AlarmPresentation_Button_Fentanyl» Power Point Presentation   » PDF

Related Links

» COMBAT's History

» STRiVIN' Initiative

» STRiVIN' Social Services Referral Program

» Project RISE