Soon-to-be-former Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté will be remembered as the first African-American chief to lead the department.
Perhaps that’s unavoidable. And yet, as he retires, the emphasis should be placed not on that trailblazing designation, but on how Forté functioned under it.
All lives mattered to Forté — including black and blue. Citizens and officers knew that because the police chief reinforced it with words, policy and action.
Forté, 54, had to navigate not only Kansas City’s racial minefields, but also the nation’s.
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The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson happened during Forté’s tenure. And suddenly, the issues that had been a part of the chief’s 30-plus year career in law enforcement were in the headlines almost daily: the dismal lack of police diversity, questionable and disparate use of force, tensions between police and some members of the black and Latino communities, and the violence that ends the lives of too many young black men.
Yet Kansas City remained largely peaceful during the Ferguson crisis. That’s a credit to the chief, and it underscores his strong connections to the community he serves.
Forté approached issues with respect for both officers and citizens. Still, he faced criticism during his tenure, particularly from the police union. But he didn’t cower, answering questions from his critics while remaining unwavering in his approach to leading the department.
The chief provided a shot of adrenaline to a police department too often wrapped in tradition and habit. Forté made sure the path to advancement was open to all employees, sometimes angering mid-level police officers.
For all his successes, though, the chief sometimes fell short.
Detectives in the Crimes Against Children unit failed to properly investigate child abuse cases, sometimes leaving the paperwork hidden in desk drawers. Justice was delayed for the most vile of criminals — those who attack children sexually. Eventually, an internal investigation was launched.
And violent crime remains a stubborn problem here. Murders dipped dramatically during his watch — to a 40-year low — but are on the rise again. Kansas City’s murder rate in 2016 was higher than when Forté became the chief and is now the ninth highest in the U.S.
No police chief is entirely responsible for reducing violent crime. Elected leadership, the business community, activists and residents all play roles. But Forté bears some blame for the problems his successor will inherit.
The chief once thought NoVa — the Kansas City No Violence Alliance — would be part of the answer. NoVa combines policing with data and focuses intensely on the most dangerous people and neighborhoods.
The idea remains sound, but the execution has been flawed. Going forward, the department will need to explore new strategies to make the streets safer.
Forté will depart in May as a relatively popular police chief. He used social media to interact with the public he served. He regularly met with residents. He took questions and provided answers. His administration was generally free of major financial scandals.
Darryl Forté should be congratulated on a consequential career. He will be missed. And as he would be the first to tell you, there is more work to do.