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Kansas City Police Take New Approach Toward Suspects

Matthew Hodapp

The Kansas City Police Department has quietly changed its training for responding to volatile situations, arming officers with something other than a gun: distance, discretion and diplomacy.

Even as the backlash from the high-profile police shooting in Ferguson continues to reverberate on the other side of Missouri, Kansas City has already instituted what’s called “tactical disengagement.”

Instead of responding to a threatening suspect, officers are being trained to create a protective distance up to 30 feet, communicate with the suspect and think about the proper way to proceed; for instance, calling for backup.

Training has been underway at the department’s range since January. Officers are taught to create more distance and slow down encounters, decreasing the chances that they have to shoot, said Sgt. Ward Smith, supervisor of Kansas City’s firearm training section.

“So if we encounter somebody at a distance of 20-to-30 feet we can move to cover, we can start out behind cover, we can say ‘Hey you’re making me nervous,’ in reference to whatever they’re doing,” Smith said.

That’s a sea change from old policies, which Police Chief Darryl Forte said were probably created and adhered to because of one word: cowardliness, which is written into the department’s code of ethics.

“No one wants to be labeled in law enforcement as being coward,” Forte said.

“So I want to make it safe and appropriate for people to back away from a situation and say ‘O.K., I’m getting in a different position to do better and assess’(the situation) and not roll up on some things that you feel you have to take immediate action because you’ll be criticized.”

The change comes after several high-profile deaths in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore and North Charleston – what Forte calls the “current civil unrest.” But Forte said he’s been thinking of this change since the beginning of his career, some 29 years ago, and he’s instituting the change now because the time is right.

Tactical disengagement is slowly taking root in other cities, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a leading law enforcement think tank. Slowing down the situation makes policing safer, he said.

“This isn’t about officers retreating from a situation. This is about officers stepping back, getting help and trying to resolve a situation in a win-win kind of way,” Wexler said. “And that’s a really new thinking for our country.”

But not everyone agrees and some police unions are openly critical of the plan, saying officers know how to avoid confrontations.

“All this chatter just increases the idea that these encounters are avoidable and law enforcement is at fault,” Jeff Roorda of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association told the New York Times.

Communities groups in Kansas City seem to approve. Damon Daniel of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, said the new policy is a step in the right direction and gives officers an alternative to just “pulling a gun.”

“I think, also, it helps officers as well as individuals recognize the humanity,” he said. “And I think that is what’s most important in all of this is recognizing the humanity in all of us.”

Reporter Matthew Hodapp contributed to this report.

For more on current police tactics in light of several high-profile police-involved shootings, watch this week's "Reveal," a new public radio show by the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This week, the show exposes some of the tensions between police and the communities they serve and how video cameras are dramatically changing the public's relationship with law enforcement.

"Reveal" is aired on KCUR this week on Sunday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 11 a.m., replacing “Up To Date,” which will resume on Tuesday. Or, click below to listen to the entire episode, entitled "Law and Disorder."

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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