KC’s first black police chief wants a city without victims
Darryl Forté sits behind his desk, his head angled down slightly, a bit of scalp showing through his closely cropped black hair. His crisp white shirt is the very same one that he wore as a member of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s homicide unit in 1994. And 17 years later, as chief of police, he’s still dealing with the city’s troubling homicide rate. He spins his chair and pulls a pair of three-ring binders off a credenza behind him — one is an inch thick, the other the size of a telephone book.
“These are the biggest ones you can get,” Forté says. “We’re going to be doing an analysis of every homicide within 24 hours. This is not just crime analysis — it’s intelligence analysis. We have to get away from collecting statistics and instead ask: What are we going to do with them?”
Since Forté was sworn into office two months ago, on October 13, there have been 21 homicides in Kansas City. By his count, he has personally attended 19 of those crime scenes. Each has left a fissure in the community. But it was the shooting of his childhood friend, Anthony Carlos Richardson, that nearly cracked the city’s new police chief. As Forté lays down one of the binders, he begins to talk about Richardson and the quiet anguish of the past month.
The morning of Friday, November 11, started as most mornings do for Forté: with a text from Richardson. He had received the following from his friend two days earlier. Darryl, you sound tired. Get some rest. You can’t do God’s work dead. Love you, man.
Richardson had been looking out for Forté since the two grew up together as next-door neighbors in south Kansas City.
“He used to tell me: ‘You’re going to be a police officer — you better not do that. You need to be a good boy,’ ” Forté says.
Richardson had recently moved to a home on Lister Avenue, bragging to Forté that he was going to illuminate the whole block with Christmas lights. Forté was planning to bring his friend a washing machine and a loveseat, but the day got away from him. At 6:30 p.m., he spoke briefly with Richardson, told him that he didn’t think he could get there that evening. Less than four hours later, Richardson and his wife, Mary, and his cousin, Stephanie Brown, had been shot and killed at the Lister house.
“I called dispatch and I had to stop my car because I knew that was Carlos’ house,” Forté says. “That was probably the worst day of my career. I’m going to my buddy’s house, driving slowly, and I’m thinking about not going.”
But he did go, and he spent four hours at the scene — an empty feeling building in his stomach as the bile rose in his throat. Someone asked for the male victim’s age, and the chief unconsciously recited Richardson’s birthday: April 29, 1961.
November 11 was a brutal night in Kansas City. Police responded to six homicides that were committed within just 10 hours. It was the kind of night that has defined this chief’s brief tenure, reinforcing the idea that the community and law enforcement are a long way from reducing violent crime in Kansas City.
“We have to have a sense of urgency in what we do,” Forté says. The 49-year-old is a trim 5 feet 7 inches, and the authority he exudes stems from his moral certainty rather than from physical intimidation. Forté’s eyes crinkle slightly when he smiles, which is surprisingly often. Still, his face offers only subtle clues to what he’s thinking.
It was Forté’s sense of urgency that led the Board of Police Commissioners to select him from a pool of five candidates, including Deputy Chief Kevin Masters and retired Deputy Chief Vince Ortega. It was an urgency expressed by a 37-page action plan that he submitted to the board: “One Community, One Vision.” In it were 221 “priority actions” and nine “individual strategic objectives.”
“He had a plan,” says Mayor Sly James, who sits on the board. “It was well-thought-out and inventive. He was also very willing to make changes in how things were done. He was willing to be bold and a little bit controversial.”
Forté transferred 52 officers within the department the week that he was sworn in, and he has committed additional resources to four designated “hot spots,” areas that together cover roughly 13 square miles of the city. Last week, he added a sergeant and six detectives to the department’s gang squad. But Forté says his actions so far haven’t been a direct response to the late autumn’s wave of violence. Instead, they’re moves that the new chief has been calculating, in some cases, for decades.
“It was necessary to change the culture, when people are entrenched in their positions,” Maj. Jim Pruetting Jr. says. “He took them out of their comfort zone.”
Forté is the fourth of five children. The youngest son of Willia Forté-Davis was going to be either a race-car driver or a police officer. But first he had to graduate from high school, one of Forté-Davis’ requirements for her children. The single mother was strict. Forté remembers that the kids in the neighborhood called her “the warden.”
“I never expected to raise boys,” Forté-Davis says. “I expected to raise men. That means being accountable for your actions and keeping the promises you make. If you can’t keep it, you have to give that person a reason why you can’t keep it.”
In those days, Forté and Richardson were inseparable, heading out to the store together or sleeping overnight in a two-story fort they built in the woods next to their Stratford Estates neighborhood. When Forté was in the sixth grade, he met a police officer and asked what he needed to do to join the force. The patrolman responded that he could never smoke or drink. That advice, coupled with his mother’s insistence that he live a good life, formed the basis of Forté’s own strict character.
“I do believe in the underdog,” Forté-Davis says. “I always have, and that’s the reason that I told him to think for himself. I said that if something feels like it’s right, then you have to pursue it.”
After graduating from Ruskin High School in 1980, Forté began taking college courses and working. “I was fired off nearly every job that I had before the police department,” he says. Sometimes it was the job — a McDonald’s shift that went on too long for a young man’s taste. Sometimes it was Forté — a disagreement about the way his supervisor at a bank had treated a co-worker. The young Forté could be brash and sometimes confrontational. His sense of fairness — a compulsion to tell the truth — sometimes overwhelmed his job-preservation instincts.
The first time he applied to the Police Academy, he was rejected because, as he puts it, “They thought I lied on my polygraph.” He had passed the test, but the proctors refused to believe that he had never smoked or had never drunk alcohol. He says that’s still true today.
Forté received a letter in the mail telling him that he had been declined and should not reapply to the academy. He reapplied the following year. Forté again passed his polygraph test and this time was admitted, although only after two potential cadets dropped out at the last minute. In 1985, he earned his associate’s degree from Penn Valley Community College and was sworn in as a KCPD officer.
“I knew from day one that I could do things differently,” Forté says. “I thought, We can change things.”
The young beat cop began filling what would become dozens of notebooks, critiquing his own actions and those of his superiors. He started with the simple things, such as whether he checked the trunk on a routine traffic stop. By this time, Forté had learned to be more reserved in offering his opinion; on the force, he earned a reputation as someone who listened before he spoke, which gave more weight to what he did say.
Former Police Chief Rick Easley, now the president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, was Forté’s commander in the personnel division (now called human resources) nearly two decades ago.
“What I always appreciated about him was, he didn’t hesitate to ask you the hard questions,” Easley says.
By then a sergeant, Forté was responsible for overseeing the recruitment and hiring of officers. Easley recalls that Forté often gave candidates on the verge of disqualification one last look.
“We didn’t always agree, but he would always be willing to look through my window and see what I was seeing,” Easley says. “You can change his mind if you can make a good enough case. He’s not bullheaded.”
Forté sat down with the KCMCC last month and agreed to name a sergeant as a liaison to the commission’s Second Chance Program, which helps more than 3,000 ex-offenders merge back into the community. That decision reflected something Forté had told the Board of Police Commissioners a month earlier: that the input of ex-offenders was needed in developing a comprehensive plan to combat violent crime.
“You don’t just drop out of the sky with salt-and-pepper hair and become chief,” Easley says. “But I think Darryl knows what he needs to do, and that’s to develop as many partnerships as he can.”
During his time in personnel, Forté also continued his own education, observing that the police force was moving away from the traditional path of recruiting ex-military and looking to cadets who were college graduates. Forté earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration from Park University in 1990 and a master’s degree in management from Baker University seven years later.
Gary Palmer, a part-time instructor who recently retired from Baker University, remembers Forté as thoughtful, polite and studious. “His presentations were succinct, well-organized and easy to follow,” Palmer says. “I really appreciated his serious approach to the class. He was very thoughtful in the contributions that he made.”
Forté’s skills as a communicator have allowed him to relate to people in and out of uniform. In 1998, he began conducting community surveys, approaching citizens at bus stops and other public places and asking for a few minutes of their time. He wanted their frank opinions of the police and the job they were doing. The surveys were always anonymous, meant to tell him whether people were disillusioned or encouraged by the actions of the department. He has kept up this practice, off and on, ever since. “I have some in my car right now,” he says.
“Chief [Forté] gives us credibility with the community from the beginning,” Pruetting says. “It’s a sincere change of culture, one where we’re not going to be adversarial. We’re going to build trust.”
Forté rose rapidly in the ranks, receiving promotions under each of the five chiefs he served. While undercover in vice, he played the role of a recovering alcoholic at the clubs. In homicide, he worked the night shift, trying to keep a normal schedule for his wife, Lori, and two young daughters at home. It was as a major in the Violent Crimes Division that he caught his first high-profile case. Forté identified three separate crime scenes involving partially clothed women as possibly being the work of a serial killer. He was named the lead investigator on the case. While cameras taped for the A&E show The First 48, the officers broke the case. Terry Blair was arrested in September 2004 after an intensive 10-day investigation. He’s serving a life sentence, convicted of killing six women.
In the episode that A&E eventually broadcast about the case, Forté is hardly the star of the show. In fact, he is never interviewed on camera. His arm can briefly be seen in one shot — “I didn’t get out of the way fast enough,” he explains.
“I just wanted to make sure the crime got solved,” Forté says. “The people who want the cameras and the ribbons can have them.”
The case didn’t make Forté a TV star but it did cement his status in the department. And he says it taught him how to mobilize the force to achieve fast results. Having been on the job for 19 years, Forté knew which officers he wanted on the Blair investigation. In a departure from procedure, he had told those officers to approach their superiors and ask to be put on the case.
The Blair case was a swift, decisive victory for Forté, but he knew that solving one case wouldn’t fix a bad neighborhood. The area where the bodies were discovered — along the Prospect corridor — was blighted. Forté saw an opportunity to involve himself directly in the community: as a property owner.
“During the Terry Blair investigation, I heard a lot of ‘The city should do this or do that,’ ” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to point fingers, so I looked in the worst parts of town and bought lots.”
In 2005, he purchased five lots. At 2033 Prospect, he tore out a dilapidated set of steps where crack addicts liked to congregate. A few years back, he tried to sell a property 15 blocks farther south on Prospect, but the sign kept getting stolen.
“I found the guy who kept taking it, and he told me someone was paying him to do it because they didn’t want me to leave. I haven’t put up a for-sale sign since,” Forté says.
The following year, he was named deputy chief and began working within the Executive Services Bureau. Then-Chief Jim Corwin had urged Forté to make that move. Understanding the budget and finances of the department were, Corwin told him, vital to the job that Forté saw himself in next.
Eight days after Richardson’s slaying, Forté walked into the first of what he intends to be quarterly community meetings at the Robert J. Mohart Multi-Purpose Center. He spent 10 minutes shaking hands and introducing himself to people in a line near the door, politely putting off a TV news crew. Members of patrol divisions, the street crimes unit, and the gangs unit sat around tables, their roles identified by prim white tabletop signs. Hundreds of Kansas Citians had come out to talk about what was happening in their neighborhoods.
“Community policing can be defined in many ways,” Pruetting says. “It’s been referred to as a policy. He’s making it a practice. The old mission was to partner with the community. But we’re not partnering with the community — we are the community. It breaks down the culture of us versus them.”
Over four hours that day, Forté was inside a community room down the hall, sitting down with citizens individually. Community organizers, professors and members of Forté’s family all sat waiting while Sgt. Mike Schofield called them in one by one and crossed their names off a list on his clipboard.
The tone of most of these conversations (many of them about the city’s homicide rate) was more optimistic than confrontational. Hopeful was the word that Atziri Tovar, the youth and community liaison for the Mattie Rhodes Center, used to describe her sit-down with the chief.
“He was welcoming and wanted to help,” Tovar says. “He has an open door for us, and what else can we ask for? It’s going to be difficult, but I’m hopeful. We have to trust the police, that they’ll work for us.”
Tovar is also part of the Latino Advocacy Taskforce, a two-year-old group that advocates for victims’ families. Within 48 hours of a crime, the LAT provides financial support, counseling and — when necessary — coordination of funeral services. It also works to set up communication between those families and the police, which is one reason that Tovar is pleased with Forté’s pledge to visit the Northeast satellite of the Mattie Rhodes Center in the next month.
“It’s inspiring. It makes us want to keep going, having him there,” Tovar says.
Forté believes that these forums can kick-start trust between police officers and citizens. The chief says he’ll know that this is happening when more calls come in to investigate nonviolent crimes.
“One way I’ll know we’re making progress is if property crime goes up,” Forté says. “Although those numbers should then go back down, if we’re doing our job.”
Engaging the community is one of the challenges faced by the chief in the coming months, but it’s his relationships within the department that may ultimately determine the success of his initiatives. Sgt. Brad Dumit, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, has found Forté to be respectful and open in the initial talks with the FOP.
“Forté’s done a great job,” Dumit says. “His sense of being able to listen to people, truly listen to them and dissect what they’re saying, means a lot.”
The prevailing feeling around the department is that Forté’s rank hasn’t changed his approach to policing but, rather, is changing those around him. Commanders are moving into the field, and officers are now being graded on their positive interactions in the way they may have been evaluated in the past on ticketing or traffic stops. Forté is holding colleagues to the standards he has set for himself.
“As a commander, he was what I would call a people person,” Easley says. “He’s an effective leader because he can communicate what he’s done and what his expectations are.”
The mayor says his new chief’s early days will be critical to finding a long-term solution to combating violent crime in Kansas City. “A problem this entrenched doesn’t turn around in five days, five weeks, five months or maybe even five years,” James says. “But it’s the foundation that’s being laid out there now.”
Forté is less than 60 days into his tenure as chief, but he seems to understand that the gravity of the homicide issue, combined with the inevitable political pressures of the job, requires him to think about a succession plan.
“Everything has a shelf life,” he says. “I’m trying to be as fresh as I can be for as long as I can. But I need to start putting people in places where they can grow. It’s not just about what I do when I’m here. We need to have good leaders when I leave.”
And that may be Forté’s single greatest impact on the department. He’s determined to groom its future leadership.
Forté attended Richardson’s funeral on November 21. Since then, he has found himself checking his phone in the mornings, looking for a text from his friend.
“I tell my daughters, ‘You can’t be a victim,’ Forté says. “Things happen to everyone. The question is what are you going to do about it.”