Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté says he understands the delicate balance between the thin blue line that he swore to uphold and the struggles of being a black man in a society that often views him as a dangerous threat.
More than 30 years ago, shortly before he entered the police academy, Forté was pulled over and made to empty his trunk by white police officers for no discernible reason, he said. As he sought the chief’s job five years ago, a frightening note left in his mailbox so unnerved him that he had his wife and a daughter learn how to shoot a gun. Once he got the job, he was harassed.
“In talking to people, you feel what they feel, and being a black male, I understand what happens in Kansas City,” he said in an interview with The Star. “I have experienced racial profiling, I have experienced bullying as a member of this Police Department. So these things are real and indelible.”
Uneasiness between police and African-Americans escalated last month after the police shooting deaths of two black men in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La., and the revenge assassinations of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Forté — the city’s first African-American police chief — has been lauded for his calming and consistent presence in keeping his city’s peace.
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“He has had a direct impact on why this city has not exploded,” said the Rev. Ronald Lindsay, pastor of the Concord Fortress of Hope Church in south Kansas City. “He is so respected in the urban core. Many in the Police Department follow his lead in how they engage the community.”
Forté has also drawn criticism from police union officials, who complained after Forté said some police shootings of black men were driven by “unreasonable fear” and poor training.
Since becoming police chief, Forté has maintained a high profile in the city of his birth. He routinely shows up at crime scenes, sometimes in his off-duty clothes and riding his Harley; tweets information and photos of officers; attends community meetings; and is often accessible to residents through various social media platforms.
Forté, 54, is slowly reshaping how street cops interact with those they serve. He has recruited more minority police officers, engaged the community and trained officers to use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to avoid police shootings, called “de-escalation and disengagement.”
Mayor Sly James praised Forté for his forward-thinking leadership of the police.
“He was ... the very first police chief that I heard talk about de-escalation and disengagement as a real strategy for dealing with things. Now it’s all the rage, but he was talking about that two years ago,” James said.
During Forté’s five-year tenure as chief, Kansas City police have killed 18 people — down from the 25 fatal police shootings during the five years prior to Forté’s appointment. The most recent fatal officer-involving shooting happened June 8.
But police shootings reverberate for the department. Last week, a Jackson County jury found the Police Department at fault in the 2007 shooting death of a woman with a mental illness. Also, last week the mother of Ryan Stokes, a 24-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a biracial Kansas City police officer in 2013, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the police board and the officer.
Over the past two years, Kansas City has experienced a 37 percent spike in homicides, according to a recent national crime study. Homicides have increased again this year.
Hours after Kansas City resident Gavin Eugene Long gunned down three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers on July 17, Forté traveled to each of the city’s six patrol divisions and talked with officers during their roll call.
His message was simple, yet profound:
“We care about you, we appreciate what you are doing. Be safe and if you need anything, let us know.”
Forté also emailed his command staff and other top-level police officers and asked them to don their uniforms to hit the streets and respond to 911 service calls.
“It was important for me to let them know we care about them during these difficult times,” he said. “And say to them, ‘We support you and we’ve got your back.’ ”
Forté and others have expressed concern that despite their best efforts, tensions between police and the community may be simmering and the city’s luck may soon run out.
“We’ve been very fortunate here, but we’re still one incident away from things going badly for Kansas City,” Forté said.
Forté does not dismiss the complaints of racism from protestors, including those from the Black Lives Matter movement. It is something as a Kansas City native and police officer he has experienced first-hand.
Months before he joined the Police Department, Forté said, he was pulled over by a pair of patrol officers as he drove near 43rd Street and Prospect Avenue. The officers mocked and made fun of him after Forté told them he had just gotten off work as a check deposit clerk at the Federal Reserve Bank. They then ordered Forté to remove items from the trunk of his car but found nothing illegal. There were other profiling incidents as well, he said.
And when he was a finalist for the chief’s job, someone left a cryptic note in his mailbox at home that read, “Dead man walking; never.”
Concerned about his family’s safety, Forté sent his wife and oldest daughter to the firing range to learn how to shoot a gun, he said.
Later in the selection process, he intercepted an email that laid out an effort that would accuse him of sexual harassment, he said.
“And the plan, I found out later, was that if you do enough of those and come out publicly and say, ‘Well nobody is doing anything to address all of these issues with Darryl,’ even though there are none but they are just putting it out there,” he said.
The harassment didn’t end after Forté was selected as police chief.
Someone pounded nails into the tires of his personal vehicle parked at his home, he said.
“I’m not complaining because I have been black all of my life,” Forté said. “I have been in Kansas City all of my life, so I know how it works and I know what I signed up for, but we have to talk about these things.”
Forté is working to change the mindset of the rank and file as well as their ever-evolving relationship with the community.
Some changes he has made in addition to training officers on de-escalation tactics:
▪ Officers who are not assigned to a specific patrol division, such as detectives or those with a specialized job, are now required to work in parts of the city where violent crime has historically been a problem.
▪ Police officers, dispatchers, crime scene technicians and others attend sessions where they learn how to recognize, avoid and deal with trauma they witness in their jobs and other job-related stresses.
▪ He appointed a diversity officer and made overall officer wellness a priority.
▪ Forté devoted an entire unit to assist violent crime victims and their families.
▪ He committed resources and personnel to the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, which works with violent offenders.
However, his plan to change department policy to give the chief more latitude in making promotions from sergeant to captain to diversify top management was met with opposition.
“I’m going to do what is best for this organization and as an African-American male with this opportunity in this city, I am going to talk about it and do some things to remedy some of things that we have done as an institution,” he said.
James praised and sympathized with the many challenges Forté faces.
“I think he has been a chief that black, white, Latino can be proud of,” James said. “He has made a very serious effort to be open and to be available in most instances, and what he is doing is designed to create better relationships.”
Forté has made organizational changes to foster certain levels of efficiency, James said.
“He’s not afraid to do things that are not necessarily going to make him real popular across the board with traditionalists, but in this day and age we don’t need traditional,” James said. “We need somebody who’s looking at doing something a little different and taking different approaches in order to achieve a different result.”
Others commended Forté for how he works to build relationships between the Police Department and the community.
“I think under the circumstances and things he’s faced, I can’t imagine anybody else as strong as him in that situation that has led with such integrity and dignity, in spite of the internal divide and constant criticism that he faces in the city,” said Alissia Canady, a former Jackson County assistant county prosecutor and now the 5th District city councilwoman.
Speaking at a recent police board meeting, Sgt. Brad Lemon, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, acknowledged past tensions between some police officers and those in the community.
“We have had people in the street who were not kind-hearted and had certain attitudes — but I don’t see that anymore,” he said. “To say we don’t treat people correctly — and there are some incidences, small incidences where people have made mistakes and said some things that they shouldn’t have said — but at the end of the day, this department is a phenomenal department, and the people we have are phenomenal people.”
Kansas City Council members Katheryn Shields and Quinton Lucas, both members of the council’s public safety committee, commended Forté for being generally transparent and accessible in the Kansas City community.
Both said they had good encounters with Forté when they were running for office in early 2015, after racial strife reached a fever pitch the previous summer and fall in Ferguson, Mo.
Shields said that after Ferguson, Forté had a “sort of peace gathering at 31st and Prospect, and a lot of people of all different colors were there.”
Shields recalled how Forté described the Kansas City approach, trying to proactively “interact with the neighborhoods that they police rather than just being sort of an occupation force.”
“I was very impressed by that,” Shields said.
Lucas said he was on a panel with Forté during the council campaign in which Forté talked to a predominantly black crowd about relationships between communities of color and the police. Lucas said Forté candidly acknowledged that there would be shootings and other controversies in the future but focused on how to build community connections to make sure the police and the city were addressing those issues.
“I commend him on his transparency so far, and I would commend him on his realistic approach to these things, knowing that there are real concerns but that there’s a way to address and get out in front of an issue,” Lucas said.
African-Americans make up approximately 31 percent of Kansas City’s population and about 80 percent of the homicides. Communities call upon the police to respond to those tragedies, so Forté faces the same challenges most urban police chiefs face, said Damon Daniel, president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.
“Some challenges include segregated economic opportunities, deeply rooted institutional racism, lack of diversity, officers who lack historical and cultural context of the communities they serve, and overworked, traumatized staff,” Daniel said. “It is my hope that my community begins to police itself and hold each other to higher standards.
“We must begin to invest in our community whether it be mentoring, voting or opening up a business,” he said. “All are important steps to bending the arch of justice.”
The entire Police Department, from the chief to patrol officers, faces a host of additional challenges in light of the recent police shootings around the country, police board president Michael Rader said in an email interview.
“The most important relationships are those built not in times of crisis, but in the day-to-day interactions with the community,” Rader said. “These relationships predate and will outlast any of the current events that we see unfolding around the nation.”
Forté’s counterpart in Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler, said Kansas City is fortunate to have Forté as its chief.
“He’s an awesome guy, high energy, not afraid to speak his mind,” Zeigler said. “That is so important when so many people have to be politically correct. It is awesome to talk to a chief who can say it like it is. I appreciate that.”
After the Dallas killings of five police officers, residents reached out for Forté’s guidance. One Kansas City mother took to social media to seek his counsel for keeping her sons safe as black men. Kansas City radio stations asked Forté to advise their young black male listeners how to conduct themselves during traffic stops. And area pastors invited him to stand in their pulpits to assuage the mounting fears of congregants.
“These challenges are very real,” Rader said. “Leading an organization like the police department requires a strong bond with the community. A bond that can only be developed with long-term and consistent interaction within the community.”
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.