Government & Politics

Tensions growing as Sheriff Darryl Forté resists questions about troubled jail

There’s more trouble at the Jackson County jail, only this time it’s political — not the staffing shortages, violent attacks and broken plumbing that have created a mountain of headlines over recent years.

At the center of the turmoil is the man who is being asked to fix all that, Sheriff Darryl Forté.

Barely six weeks into his reign as the jail’s chief caretaker, Forté has irked some Jackson County legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, with his refusal to share his thoughts on fixing the jail. Not in public or private.

While still hopeful they can build a lasting partnership with the sheriff as the county looks toward replacing the decrepit Jackson County Detention Center, several legislators who spoke with The Star say it’s not looking good so far.

Tensions erupted publicly last week on both sides.

“Apparently, he forgot my number, which was fine,” the legislature’s chairwoman, Theresa Galvin from the 6th District, remarked at a committee meeting. By her tone, however, it was clear the sheriff’s failure to return phone calls wasn’t fine with her, as she went on to cite two specific dates when she left messages and heard nothing back.

Galvin brought it up during a one-hour public session, planned for weeks, that was supposed to focus on the jail and include Forté. But shortly after 5 p.m. on the Friday before the Monday morning meeting, Forté wrote justice and law enforcement committee chairwoman Jeanie Lauer to confirm that he and corrections department director Diana Turner would not be appearing.

In that email, Forté further stressed that no one on his staff would provide information about the jail except him from now on, and then only after he had a better handle on the corrections department, which he took charge of Jan. 1.

“We’re still assessing needs,” he wrote Lauer of the 5th District. “It’s imperative that we have first-hand factual information before we begin sharing any details about issues or sharing any detailed intended courses of actions.”

Still, legislators said they would have appreciated hearing something from him in person, as the jail ‘s future is one of the biggest issues facing the county.

“I was a little disturbed about neither the sheriff or the corrections director appearing,” legislator Ron Finley said at the committee meeting, “but I’m going to leave that as the case may be and encourage positive communications going forward.”

Other legislators told The Star they, too, hope they can build a strong relationship with Forté, who retired as chief of the Kansas City Police Department in 2017 after a 31-year career.

While Forté may run the jail, the legislature controls the tax dollars that support it.

“For once the legislature is unified,” said Tony Miller, who represents the 3rd District at large. “We want everyone to succeed. We want him to succeed. ... As far as I’m concerned we want nothing but success for the sheriff and operation of the jail. Anyone who says otherwise is mistaken.”

Forté isn’t so sure.

The full legislature met later the same Monday, after the jail meeting. Forté was not on the agenda, but arrived expecting to speak. When he wasn’t called on (Galvin said her hands were full running the meeting and couldn’t always keep track of Forté, as he was in and out of the room), he complained to a TV crew. During that same interview, he chastised legislators, who he didn’t name, for talking to inmates during a tour of the jail on Feb. 1.

His own corrections department arranged and chaperoned the tour.

Jalen Anderson, 1st District at large, later told The Star that he asked for the tour, during which he asked an inmate about the food and adequacy of the jail’s plumbing.

“I’m personally shocked at the way the sheriff is behaving,” said Anderson’s aide, Addison Newberry, who was also on the 3-hour, 45-minute jail tour that Forté criticized as being too long.

The sheriff’s concerns continued in a series of nine text messages he sent to a Kansas City Star reporter on Wednesday and Thursday.

In the exchange that the reporter initiated, Forté cited the perceived snub and insinuated that some members of the legislature were against him: “Doesn’t make sense to me that some want information, I’m present to provide information and for some odd reason I wasn’t recognized.”

In another text, he raised the specter of criminality at the courthouse, without providing any evidence to substantiate it: “Corruption is an understatement!” he wrote.

He also took issue with the reporter’s work. Specifically, an article last week on County Executive Frank White’s use of campaign funds to pay legal fees he’s incurred during state and federal investigations of possible criminality on White’s part.

“By the way your story on County Executive Frank White Jr. was trash. Remember what goes around comes around! What skeletons might you have in your closet? Stay tuned, stay safe and enjoy the evening.”

When informed that The Star would be publishing that remark, he responded:

“Great! I give you permission as well as encourage you to quote what you perceive to be a threat. My intent is not to threaten, my intent is to educate. I’ll continue to educate you at every opportunity.” Then he suggested that the reporter be fired for biased reporting.

White appointed Forté last May to replace Sheriff Mike Sharp after Sharp resigned amid scandal. Forté knew then there was a possibility he’d take responsibility for running the jail, if in November voters decided to keep him on the job for two more years and if they passed a charter amendment transferring the corrections department to the sheriff’s office.

The Star and others have been asking Forté since that election how he intends to fix what many critics inside and outside of county government have called a broken institution in need of reform. He has declined repeatedly, telling the legislature during last month’s budget hearings that it’s too soon for him to say.

On Thursday, he reiterated that point in a text.

“I’ve shared that I’m criminally and civilly responsible for everything that happens in the jail,” he wrote The Star. “I won’t be rushed to submit a plan.”

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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