Healing, peace, better relations must follow black, police killings in U.S.

Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté, speaking at a news conference, is credited by many in building better police-community relations in Kansas City. Behind Forté are Kansas City Mayor Sly James (middle) and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters.
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté, speaking at a news conference, is credited by many in building better police-community relations in Kansas City. Behind Forté are Kansas City Mayor Sly James (middle) and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters. The Kansas City Star

A sign that times are changing for the better may have been the peaceful observance last week in Ferguson, Mo., of the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.

A few hundred people attended a service with a moment of silence on Canfield Drive in the St. Louis suburb where the unarmed, 18-year-old African-American was fatally shot Aug. 9, 2014, by a Ferguson police officer after a confrontation. The shooting led to weeks of often violent protests and more of the same after a grand jury declined to indict the officer. During the one-year anniversary, unrest occurred again with more arrests.

But Brown’s death led to the Black Lives Matter movement, which brought badly needed attention to police killings of black males in New York, Cleveland and North Charleston, S.C.; and last month in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. Fatal shootings of police officers, with many also wounded, followed last month in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The black gunmen were intent on killing white officers in retaliation.

This violence on both sides makes no sense and must end. Ferguson now is a national best-practices model.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation cleared the officer in the shooting, but a separate report showed that Ferguson police routinely violated African-Americans’ constitutional rights in the majority black city of 21,000 people. Through racial profiling in traffic stops, ticketing and court costs, blacks became a revenue source for City Hall.

The Baltimore Police Department last week was similarly blasted by the Justice Department for violating the Constitution and federal laws in racially profiling African-Americans in traffic stops, searches and harassment in that majority black city. That report followed the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, 25, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody. That set off riots, too.

But now is the time for calm and healing. In April, a federal judge approved an agreement between Ferguson and the Justice Department with changes, including diversity training for police; the purchase of software and the hiring of staff to analyze records on arrests, use of force and other police matters; outfitting officers and jail workers with body cameras; hiring a team to monitor progress; and municipal court reforms.

The goal is for police to better serve all city residents. People in Baltimore should expect the same outcome. As in Ferguson, the report is just the first step toward a negotiated settlement.

During the Obama administration, nearly two dozen cities have been investigated after they were accused of unconstitutional policing. The results show a law enforcement culture that must change.

In Ferguson, more African-Americans registered to vote, and last year they elected two blacks to the six-person City Council, which already had one black member. Political involvement is necessary for change in any community. Also, veteran Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss was named police chief in Ferguson. He’s an African-American in charge of a majority white department. That’s a positive development, too.

Kansas Citians understand. Darryl Forté five years ago became this city’s first black police chief, and during the national turmoil, Kansas City couldn’t have hoped for better leadership.

In his tenure, Forté has increased the number of officers of color on the force. Officer-involved fatal shootings have dropped, and the policy against “cowardliness” and never backing up has changed. De-escalation and disengagement are winning strategies in managing volatile situations.

Forté has earned widespread praise. Bringing down tension doesn’t lessen effective policing. Forté said in an interview with The Star’s editorial board that police and the community need to focus on building better relationships.

“The police are part of the community — not us versus them,” Forté said after finishing a day’s work at Police Headquarters only to then go out on his Harley to ride in the community that the department serves. “That’s something I try to get through to people.

“We’re in this together.”

Forté, like all wise police veterans, knows the process of relationship building has to be ongoing to maintain trust among all residents. Forté doesn’t boast about his department’s success.

“I think we’re doing an OK job in Kansas City,” he said. “But I want to do better than OK. We’re going to try to get better. I’m not going to waste this opportunity while I’m sitting at the table to try to make a difference.”

That puts Kansas City ahead of others with police who are playing catch up.