Hands-on Darryl Forté marks his first year as KC police chief

As Teresa Miller drove down Prospect Avenue with her aunt Thursday, they passed a couple of men talking on a sidewalk.

“That’s the police chief!” her aunt yelled. “Turn around!”

Sure enough, the man wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket while chatting with a store owner at 36th Street and Prospect was Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté.

“He just looked like a regular guy,” Miller said. “He was on his motorcycle. That was so cool.”

Forté, who reaches his one-year anniversary as chief today, spent much of his first year out in the community. He also implemented dozens of ideas, including some that challenged police culture, and reaffirmed his reputation for fairness. But he also struggled with morale issues among employees upset mostly over pay and benefit issues.

He called his accessibility one of his biggest accomplishments.

He likes to ride his motorcycle with a personalized license plate of “4TAE” into troubled neighborhoods whenever he can. It keeps him connected to the community and well-grounded, he said.

It also illustrates one of the biggest differences from recent police chiefs who rarely, if ever, ventured into troubled neighborhoods alone.

Previous police chiefs worked hard and were “very good,” said the Rev. Keith Brown, but Forté is uniquely “hands-on.”

Forté limits his time in the office, avoids a rigid schedule and pops into patrol stations in the middle of the night.

“He is much more close to the ground than any other police chief was,” Brown said. “He’s a person who’s like us. And I don’t mean the color of his skin, but what’s in his heart — his desire to diminish the criminal element.”

Miller noticed an immediate difference after Forté took office.

“I’ve seen more police on the streets, rolling in neighborhoods,” she said. “And I’ve noticed they’re friendlier.”

Miller, who owns the salon Into Hair Naturally at 7601 Troost Ave., hadn’t met a police officer in years, prior to Forté’s stint as chief, she said.

“Since he’s been in office, I’ve met three officers,” she said. “They come check on me and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Is everything OK?’ They’re really good people.”

In fact, Miller calls them her friends.

“I’ve got their numbers,” she said. “Business owners need to have a good relationship with police.”

When Forté took over, he pledged to reduce violent crime. He said the key was improving relationships, and he’s done that, many people say. But the level of homicides this year remains about the same as last year. Although drive-by shootings decreased in the first six months of this year, property crimes inched up.

Forté said he knew it would take longer than one year to affect something as complex as violent crime.

“Crime is not solely a police issue,” he said. “But we need to do everything we can with our resources.”

Forté envisions a day when residents call police to report brewing disputes, before they turn violent, giving police a chance to intervene.

No one doubts Forté’s devotion to making Kansas City safer. Even his critics in the department acknowledge his laser-like focus on violent crime.

Forté wakes up early, sometimes sending emails at 4 a.m., and works late, cruising through neighborhoods and responding to crime scenes and nearly all homicides. He works nearly every weekend and gets very little sleep, noting it’s a “24-hour a day” job.

He hasn’t wasted any time shaking up the department. In his first year, he implemented more than 80 priority actions out of 231 listed in the five-year strategic plan that he presented to police board members when he interviewed for the job. He noted that no previous police chief had developed his own plan.

His actions include:

•  Starting “hot-spot” policing by adding officers to the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

•  Helping the city secure a gunshot detection system called ShotSpotter.

•  Holding community forums for residents and internal forums for police officers.

•  Creating a victim’s assistance and crime prevention division.

•  Assigning more officers to homicide scenes.

•  Requiring commanders to work four patrol shifts every year to keep them connected to the community.

•  Doubling the size of the gang squad.

Forté also stopped an internal practice of commanders transferring problem employees to other units without written documentation and corrective action. The change will allow the department to better develop employees and to identify employees who don’t learn from their mistakes, he said.

Sgt. Brad Lemon, executive vice president of the department’s Fraternal Order of Police, praised changes in the department’s disciplinary process under Forté.

“He’s been extremely fair with discipline,” said Lemon, adding: “He’s been the most approachable (chief) for the FOP.”

In one of Forté’s more nontraditional moves, he hired a community outreach specialist with strong ties to the urban core to bridge the gap between police and residents who don’t want to snitch. That person, Pat Clarke, reports directly to Forté and will help with recruiting to improve diversity, Forté said.

“He’s got a lot of juice in the community,” Forté said. “We’ve got to do things differently.”

The scope and number of changes have left some officers craving more specific directions from Forté, who admitted he probably needs to slow down to better explain what he’s doing and why.

“Sometimes I go 100 mph,” he said. “We could communicate better internally and externally. We talk about how to improve that constantly.”

Forté also has dealt with allegations of low morale within the department. Some employees are upset about pay and benefit issues, but Forté said the complainers represent a small minority of employees and some retired malcontents.

“I’ve talked to other police chiefs and they face the same thing,” he said.

One thing Forté faced uniquely as Kansas City’s first black chief were incidents of possible racism, he said.

While he was competing for the job, someone put nails in the tires of three of his vehicles outside his home. About that time, he also received what he considered a death threat: a note that read: “Never. Dead man walking.”

“I think it’s possible it could be related to race because it hasn’t happened to previous chiefs here,” he said. “For the first time in my career, I had to take my wife to the shooting range to teach her how to shoot.”

But Forté doesn’t like to dwell on negativity. He is a perpetually positive person. A lot of his stress is self-imposed, he said.

“I always want to give people more than they paid for,” he said.

Overall, Forté said he would give himself a grade of B- for his first year.

“We’ve done a lot of things,” he said. “But I’m not satisfied yet.”

His boss, Board of Police Commissioners President Lisa Pelofsky, is pleased with his progress.

“We wanted a sort of different direction,” Pelofsky said. “And we got it.”