In light of recent violence that has dominated the news for the past several weeks, we asked Kansas City, Missouri's, chief of police how he is coping with a reduced force in the face of increasing violent crime and racial tensions.
When people target law enforcement officers, we understand that person could also hurt civilians. Personally, I feel mental illness is an ignored real issue. I mean, it’s not normal when you drive down the street and shoot at a house where children are sleeping. There is something wrong with a person who does that. There is some kind of disorder. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s poor conflict-resolution skills or some mental health issues, but there is a real problem.
When our officers hear about other officers killed in the line of duty, it makes them concerned, but it also reinforces why we are here. Our officers — every one of them — are here because they care, and they know their job is dangerous.
No. We aren’t doing anything new because our safety has always been at the top of the priority list. Like other departments, we put out bulletins and educate about new policies as they come out. But our procedure is always under review. We are constantly updating as we go along. The last time police officers were ambushed, I went out into the field and talked to them. Their attitudes are great. They are ready to work, and they love to serve.
What’s more concerning to me is I don’t think we are placing enough attention on vehicular incidents. There are so many safety issues that we need to continue to improve and address. Automobiles are dangerous. Most people don’t realize it, but more officers die due to auto accidents than by any other means — from someone colliding into us to being hit on the side of the road. We have to talk about that more and look into improving safety measures to better protect our officers.
One of the things I have recognized during my career is that we haven’t done the best job we could have of talking about secondary trauma. Surviving secondary trauma is an important issue. We need to talk about how people are affected by the things they see on the job. Years and years of experiencing secondary trauma can wear on a person. I spoke with a homicide detective recently, and I said, “Hey, do you still enjoy doing this?” He said, “Absolutely. I love figuring things out and solving crimes. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” But I know he’s seen a lot of awful things. And when you see it over and over again, you can begin to see signs and symptoms of chronic stress. Police officers are no different than people from other sectors. We have programs to help combat issues with binge drinking and other substances, and marital issues can be a problem for us, just like anyone else.
Some of the [traumatic] things we see in one week, other people won’t see in a lifetime. We have a program here called Building Resilience. It’s a class to help with survival skills for people who been have been repeatedly exposed to secondary trauma. We also have a program called Warriors’ Ascent. Many family members sign up for that class as well as members of our department. Some of our people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Warriors’ Ascent is a practice that you use to self-heal. Twenty-nine of our officers have gone through the program. Many more have signed up.
To give you an example: I often ask officers, “Can you remember the most traumatic thing that’s happened to you?” Frequently, they’ll tell a story of something particularly bad, such as a gruesome accident or violent crime, but they’ll say the event didn’t really bother them. We know it has become a problem because if you are still talking about an event in detail, then it’s still in your head.
There is a cumulative impact because of secondary trauma. We’ve learned if you don’t have a way to process these events you see over and over, you just don’t know how it might show up. It may appear in other ways, perhaps on another call.
We are big proponents of allowing our officers to tap out after a particularly stressful event. If we receive a call because citizens are concerned about too many police vehicles at a restaurant, we look at that differently now. Perhaps these officers are taking a break after an especially bad situation. We know this is very important to do. You wouldn’t want an officer coming from a very bad situation because they hadn't taken time to decompress before responding to another call for service. They aren’t going to do as good a job. Officers are encouraged to take rest and meal breaks.
We take our wellness programs for first responders very seriously. Twice a week, we offer yoga classes. It’s part of the many things we are doing to keep our team healthy.
Darryl Forte sworn in as new chief of police in 2011 by judge J. Dale Youngs
The wellness program sounds like the type of thing other departments could benefit from. Are any others employing these programs?
To my knowledge, there are no other departments in the country offering these exact types of wellness programs.
On a national level, we are seeing increasing frequency of violent use of force, especially against young black men. Do you feel this is an escalating problem, or is there a new, heightened awareness of an old problem?
I think we are seeing a lot more video playing numerous times, and what we are seeing can be distorted. People are out there with cameras and so we are reliving these events over and over. We used to see these events once or twice on the news. Now, we are seeing them played over and over on social media sites. People can ad-lib, too, and that’s what’s dangerous. I don’t believe the problems are new, but we are seeing more of it because more citizens are videotaping, and they aren’t always representing the actual facts.
What do you think people misunderstand about police?
I want everyone to know that we just want to do a good job in service to our community. We work very long hours, and there’s not one of us who doesn’t care. If we have someone come here who doesn’t care, we notice them pretty quickly, and they weed themselves out. If you’re not serious about the sacrifices you have to make, then this isn’t for you.
When you talk about our law enforcement team, they are very engaged. When a dispatcher call goes out — “shots being fired at so-and-so street” — you will hear every [available] car saying they are on the way. What people should realize is that every one of us would die for anyone out there. I know for a fact any one of us would take a bullet for anyone in our community. We are here because we care that much. It’s because we want people to be safe.
At the police department, we don’t want to give mediocre service. We want to be above average on every single call. That’s what we are trying to do. We have really great people, and we need more. While we do a good job now, I’m not happy with good. We need to do better, and we are doing the work to become great.
What do you say to a young black man or woman interested in becoming a cop?
I tell them and others that the Kansas City Police Department is the best-kept secret in town. I met someone yesterday at QuikTrip. I told him I’d give his number to a recruiter. He is a Marine and the type of man we want. He was very professional and seemed compassionate. It’s that type of person we are looking for. We also need to continue to focus on diversity. So, what I would tell them and others is don’t come here for any reason other than you want to help and serve others. You will be helping people when no one else can.
What is the biggest threat facing Kansas City on any given day?
There is no one single type of threat our city faces. We are town full of talented people. We are prepared for whatever comes up. I am very confident in the men and women of this department. The city is in good hands.
Forte circa 1985
The city has seen an increase in violent crime this year after a few years of decline. What do you believe is the cause?
I hope people remember crime is not solely a responsibility of the police department. When you talk about crime, there are trends. Most of the homicides we are seeing are people who know each other. It may look like we have more violent crime, but other crime statistics are way down. Burglaries are down, and auto theft is down. Group homicides are down as well.
How do you feel about body cameras and dash cams?
They are two different things. Dash cams pick up street video. Body cameras have the potential to capture video in the privacy of a home. We are working on some things now. Body cameras are in our future. They will largely provide evidence that our officers are doing the right thing. As far as I know, not a single person on the department is opposed to them.
How do you feel about civilians carrying firearms?
We enforce existing laws, and any person carrying a firearm needs to understand the laws involved with that. They need to learn handgun retention. What happens when someone gets close enough to you to take your gun and turn it on you? Think about where that bullet is going to land. You have to think about a lot of things, including your own safety, but I am not opposed to them as long as the firearm is lawfully possessed.
You’ve been on the job for five years, correct?
Five years in October. It’s my hope to be here another five, but you never know. We are working hard to develop our next team. We have something good now, but we need to move to great. As I mentioned before, we have the right people to do that. We are also getting some people ready. Succession planning began the day I was appointed chief. People should know, we have some sharp people, and we are developing some great talent. We are at the beginning of becoming a great organization.
Darryl Forté was appointed the 44th chief of the Kansas City Missouri Police Department on Oct. 12, 2011. He oversees a department that employs about 1,400 police officers and 600 non-sworn staff and serves nearly half a million residents across 319 square miles. He is the first African-American chief in the city’s history.
He began his career with the Kansas City Missouri Police Department in August 1985. Since that time, he has held every rank on the department. His diverse assignment history has included positions in patrol, investigations, human resources and budgeting. He has received numerous awards and commendations.
You’ll find him riding a police motorcycle three days a week. Though he is unaware of any other police chief in the nation doing this, he feels it’s imperative to the job. It’s on his agenda as a regular part of his work week, weather permitting. He feels being available encourages people to talk. He also feels he has built many important relationships this way.
Once a month, he rides the city bus (on his own time). He travels from downtown all the way south and back. He sits in the back corner, wearing regular clothes. Usually, someone identifies him, which then encourages conversation.