In early August 2016, Kansas City’s chief of police Darryl Forté was under fire from heads of multiple Kansas City police unions.
The criticism came after Forté told the Kansas City Star:
We have to talk about real issues. Black lives matter. That’s real… As an African American male, with this opportunity in this city, I’m going to talk about it and I’m going to do some things to remedy some of the things we’ve done as an institution. When we talk about institutional racism, it’s real. Some of our policies, some of our practices, it’s real.
I’ll talk about it every time I get the mic because there is an issue with too many African American males being killed by police officers, and part of it, in my opinion, is unreasonable fear. Unreasonable fear is a huge one. And we talk about poor training. We all have to do the right thing every day. And I know we’re going to make mistakes, but that should be our goal, and we shouldn’t accept substandard police service from anybody.
Forté also opened up about his experience as a black man in Kansas City. Glenn Rice wrote in the Star:
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté says he understands the delicate balance between the thin blue line that he swore to uphold and the struggles of being a black man in a society that often views him as a dangerous threat.
More than 30 years ago, shortly before he entered the police academy, Forté was pulled over and made to empty his trunk by white police officers for no discernible reason, he said. As he sought the chief’s job five years ago, a frightening note left in his mailbox so unnerved him that he had his wife and a daughter learn how to shoot a gun. Once he got the job, he was harassed.
“In talking to people, you feel what they feel, and being a black male, I understand what happens in Kansas City… I have experienced racial profiling, I have experienced bullying as a member of this police department. So these things are real and indelible.”
The response was swift. Brad Lemon, the head of Kansas City’s Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge 99), wrote in a statement:
I cannot understand any statement regarding unreasonable fear on our member’s part when dealing with life and death situations. We are humans, not robots. We have families and lives. The fear that officers feel during critical incidents is real. It is not for someone else to tell us what is reasonable or unreasonable.
Lemon praised his fellow officers as “the finest people I have ever known,” who are trained in a “nationally recognized academy.” He continued, “Our training is not sub-standard…in fact, I would challenge anyone to find fault with it.” Then, apparently not realizing his next sentence would be an admission that improvements can always be made, he noted, “Our firearms section was just recognized for identifying several training issues that provides options [sic] to disengage and seek cover while contacting armed and dangerous subjects.”
Scott Kirkpatrick, president of the Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge 4) in Kansas City, Kansas, posted an enraged statement on Facebook, calling Forté’s comments “misguided and dangerous” — and Forté himself a “detriment to our profession.” He spoke of the recent loss of two fellow officers, and how the Kansas City, Kansas, chief has had to work “tirelessly to keep our morale high.” But
your misguided statements in your recent interview have again torn those healing wounds wide open. In your interview, you say that the recent killing of suspects is a result of as you say “UNREASONABLE FEAR.” When I heard those words, I had to listen to them again because I could not believe that the head of a well-respected law enforcement agency, and person who wears the uniform, would make such ridiculous uninformed comments.
First, how would you pretend to know what was in the hearts of any of those officers. You have not spoken to them, nor you do know them. You have not been directly or indirectly involved in the investigation so you could not and do not know all the facts. Nevertheless, your uninformed speculation is just fuel to the fire of those who have already demonstrated a desire and willingness to harm police officers. When the enemies of justice see comments like this from you as a Chief, it gives them all the license they need to engage in unimaginably callous acts against those you are supposed to represent.
Second and most importantly, to suggest that an officer’s fear at any time is per se unreasonable without knowing the facts represents a monumental misunderstanding of the job we are doing out of the streets in the current climate. Officers are rightfully on edge. They have seen their brothers and sisters gunned down in cold blood simply for wearing the uniform. You say that their fear is unreasonable. Well tell that to Det. Lancaster’s wife and daughters. Tell that to Captain Melton’s children and loved ones. Tell that to the families of officers in New York, Dallas and Baton Rouge and as close as Baldwin, Missouri. The fear is real. People are out to harm us. And now your comments will only make things worse.
The fact that white police officers “cannot understand” why Forté would speak of “unreasonable fear” and “poor training” is hardly surprising. Too many whites have turned a blind eye toward the overwhelming evidence that police treatment of blacks is a bit different that police treatment of whites — even in Kansas City.
It’s time for Kansas Citians to wake up.
Wake up to the research regarding explicit and implicit biases.
When Forté says “unreasonable fear,” he means whites (including the police) often consciously or subconsciously view blacks as more suspicious or dangerous than whites.
Surveys indicate about 60% of whites can openly admit belief in stereotypes concerning blacks: greater laziness, higher aggression, or lower intelligence — and 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be totally free of them. But nearly 90% of whites hold subconscious (implicit) anti-black biases.
Implicit biases mean whites hold certain dangerous ideas about blacks without even realizing it or being able to control it, ideas pumped into our consciousness since birth, ideas so strong and so pervasive even some 48% of blacks subconsciously believe them. These are subconscious associations: associating blacks with danger, violence, laziness, and so on, versus more positive associations for whites.
One experiment looked at what whites thought when a white man and a black man came to blows. When the white man pushed the black man, 17% of white respondents said this was a violent act. But when the black man pushed the white man? 75% of whites characterized it as violent.
Those interested in studying implicit biases more should look into Harvard University’s Project Implicit or read Tim Wise’s Colorblind.
Wake up to how biases affect police conduct.
Mr. Kirkpatrick, Mr. Lemon, clearly Chief Forté is not saying “fear that officers feel during critical incidents” isn’t real. He’s not saying police officers are bad people. He’s not encouraging civilians who hate police and want to kill police to do so. For Christ’s sake, Forté is a police officer. Believe it or not, as the chief stressed in his response to his critics, you can be proud and respectful of officers but also work to address real problems relating to race. He is simply drawing attention to blatant injustices in American policing.
Studies show blacks are are far more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. During this War on Drugs, two-thirds of the people thrown in prison for drugs are people of color, even though blacks and whites use illicit drugs at about equal rates (whites are sometimes a bit more likely to do so). When members of your racial group are pulled over, questioned, and searched at drastically higher rates, they will disproportionately fill the jail cells. Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
And as for police shootings? How many studies do we need before you acknowledge a problem might exist?
The police are more likely to become physically violent or draw their weapons at blacks than whites in similar situations. “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) showed how police officers associate innocent blacks with criminality and aggression. “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals” from the same journal showed ordinary civilians in simulations are far quicker to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and decide faster to spare an unarmed white than an unarmed black.
“The Correlates of Law Enforcement Officers’ Automatic and Controlled Race-Based Responses to Criminal Suspects” (Basic and Applied Psychology) found that during simulations police officers with anti-black biases shoot unarmed black suspects more often. “The Consequences of Race for Police Officers’ Responses to Criminal Suspects” (Psychological Science) showed police officers are more likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed blacks than unarmed whites. Fortunately, the bias diminished with extensive time in the simulation. In fact, “Across the Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) credited time in simulations when police officers (who had implicit biases) did not use lethal force in a biased way during tests. This kind of training, among others, is important.
Unarmed Americans killed in the first half of 2015 were twice as likely to be black than white, the expected result of police officers associating blacks — innocent blacks included — with aggression, danger, criminality. Blacks who were not attacking an officer when killed made up 39% of total deaths in 2012, way out of proportion to a small black population, 13% of Americans (compared to 46% of total deaths being white, who are nearly 70% of the American population).
Wake up to racial injustices in Kansas City.
Researchers from the University of Kansas write in Pulled Over (2014) that blacks in Kansas City are three times more likely to experience investigatory stops (these are not stops for actual traffic violations), especially in the white suburbs. They are twice as likely to not be told why, and five times more likely to be searched, but less likely to be found with anything illegal — and act no more disrespectfully than similarly treated whites.
One black Kansas Citian spoke of being followed by police for fifteen minutes. “They followed me all the way to the house…. I get out of the car…and they said, ‘Is this your car?’ And I said, ‘Yes’…. They ran the tags [and] I walked on in the house…. They did it for about a couple weeks.” Another described being handcuffed in a white neighborhood while his I.D. was checked to see if he was involved in a recent robbery. “He asked us where we lived and why we were over here. And he made us get out of the car…. I kept my composure…. I didn’t wanna, you know, give him a reason to do anything else…. They put us in handcuffs. And we sat outside for about an hour, and then they just let us go.”
Those are times when no one got hurt. In other incidents, abuse ends in trauma or unnecessary deaths.
- In 2005, a black family in Kansas City, Kansas, sued after five white police officers entered their home without a warrant during a birthday party. In the ensuing confrontation, they beat adults and children with fists and flashlights, spouted racial slurs, and fired pepper spray.
- In 2007, Sofia Salva was pulled over (for fake tags) on her way to the hospital. She was pregnant and bleeding, as video shows she calmly told two Kansas City officers. “How is that my problem?” one of them replied. The police jailed her for outstanding warrants. She miscarried the next day.
- In July 2013, Ryan L. Stokes allegedly refused to stop running from police and was shot and killed by a black officer; the police said Stokes was armed, but that he hid his gun moments before he was shot.
- In August 2014, graphic designer Jasmine Taylor filed a complaint against the Kansas City Police Department after an officer purportedly struck her in the face and knee during a traffic stop, sending her to the emergency room.
- In July 2015, Javon Hawkins allegedly refused to put down a sword, and an officer shot him multiple times.
People don’t forget things like this. Every incident, large or small, whether harassment or a standoff that could have been de-escalated or ended with nonlethal weapons, creates a serious strain on police-community relations. As Forté said, they “have created outrage, and to ignore these sentiments and give no thought to what police can do to improve the situation would be irresponsible.”
No, Forté speaking the truth is not going to make things more dangerous for police officers. But willful ignorance of the root causes behind distrust and hatred toward the police — and some barbaric attacks on police officers — certainly will.
Wake up, Kansas City. Wake up.
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