Last week, in an interview with The Kansas City Star, Kansas City, Missouri Police Chief Darryl Forté blamed recent police shootings of young black men on what he called “unreasonable fear” by some officers and “institutional racism” in law enforcement.
The comments drew the ire of both the Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri police unions.
KCK Fraternal Order of Police President Scott Kirkpatrick posted a long open letter on the union's Facebook Page. In it he calls Forté's remarks "misguided, ridiculous and uninformed," and says the chief had "torn ...healing wounds wide open," in reference to the recent shooting death of two of their colleagues.
And the union of the chief's own department also condemned Forté's remarks to The Star. On their website, Kansas City, Missouri FOP President Brad Lemon wrote, "I cannot understand any statement regarding unreasonable fear on our member's part when dealing with life and death situations."
He went on to chastise the chief for what he believes amounts to an arrogant assumption about the decision making abilities of the rank and file.
As social media and local blogs wondered if Chief Forté should step down, I wondered how much the tension between the top brass and rank and file police was being played out on the streets.
I spent some time with some of those who are intimately connected to what actually goes on there, who are closer to how their communities relate to police.
I met Ossco Bolton – a man who’s seen his share of roughness at the hands of police – in the neighborhood his grandmother lives in just east of Prospect.
He hadn't seen the videotaped interview or the story The Kansas City Star published last week. We pulled it up on his phone.
"Hmmm," he says, pausing to think. "I believe he said a mouthful."
About the chief's remarks, Bolton says they affirm the experience of others in the black community. Forté, the first African American police chief in Kansas City, admits he’s been racially profiled, had his property damaged and received hate mail.
"I think in the long haul some things that should have been said maybe years ago,"Bolton says.
If his friends had heard this from police years ago, Bolton believes, there might’ve been more trust. Lives might’ve been saved.
But better late than never.
Bolton has no formal platform but he says he knows these neighborhoods well, and the people who live here know him. He says people around here are resentful, angry to the point they might commit acts of violence if they felt police overstepped their authority here. It's like a tinder box. An incident waiting to happen.
Bolton knows about violence. He was a young and a powerful gang leader in the early 90's when someone sprayed the house in front of where we're standing with bullets in a drive-by shooting.
His 11-month-old nephew was on the porch that day and was killed.
"Coming here and knowing my nephew bled on the porch," he says, "remembering those officers that came to scene, that took care of my mother and myself and secured my home for my family reminds me why I do what I do."
I wanted to check out how some other community leaders read this situation.
I brought Damon Daniel, the head of the Ad Hoc Group Against Violent Crime, into our studio. I played him a bit of Chief Forté’s remarks. Forté says, "I'll talk about it every time I get the mic, because it's an issue. Too many African American males being killed by police officers. And part of it is due to an unreasonable fear."
“You know that’s the first time I’ve heard a leader within law enforcement, particularly the chief of police of any city, really speak truth,” Daniel says after hearing the tape.
But as one who regularly attends funerals with grieving families, Daniel also understands the grief police departments feel when they lose one of their own. That grief is particularly raw among the Kansas City, Kansas department with the shooting death of two members just this year.
Daniel knows law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day. But he says there's another side to that story. African Americans, he says, have feared police going back hundreds of years. And for the first time in history, there’s an organized effort by the black community to speak out — loudly — about that history of fear.
“I was at a community meeting not long ago and someone said they’ve never heard police, whether in the Eric Garner case, Mike Brown case, or Tamir Rice case, honestly come out and say, 'Something could have been done differently there,'" Daniel says. "At some point need to come out say, 'We need to make some changes and we can’t just arrest our way out of it.'"
People in the Kansas City area haven’t seen the kind of violence other cities have faced after shootings of and by police.
Ken Novak, who teaches criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says it's true, we are doing better than other cities.
But he says we should be measuring our success in more positive ways than simply a lack of violence. "Certainly the lack of rioting would be one thing but hopefully there are other ways to gauge how much the police and community come together in a preventive way," he says.
In the wake of reaction to his remarks, Chief Forté once again took to his blog.
“I respect those who serve and the labor organizations who represent them ... (but while) talking about those issues may be uncomfortable ... it is needed, so I will continue to have those discussions.”
The Ad Hoc Group Against Crime meets regularly with youth to talk about relations with police.
Ossco Bolton has organized a Unity Rally later this month. He’s invited area police departments and community members to share tacos and hear music.
But, the recent prickly exchange between the chief of police and the cops raises questions about much these efforts can do.