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Using ‘hot spots’ to chill crime: Officers blanket troubled areas, make positive contacts

Four weeks ago, new Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté poured extra officers into four violent “hot spots,” areas besieged by crime.

He told undercover detectives and tactical officers to buy drugs and serve search warrants in the areas. He told traffic officers, who normally scan highways and main thoroughfares, to spend at least two hours a day writing warnings and tickets in those neighborhoods. And he told officers who work nearby to patrol inside the targeted areas when they aren’t responding to 911 calls.

Even officers on horseback or with police dogs are spending extra time inside these 13 square miles, which are responsible for half of the city’s homicides and 42 percent of the city’s aggravated assaults since 2009, according to Forté.

Have residents noticed?

“Hell to the double-yeah,” said a man at 37th and South Benton streets who only would identify himself by his initials, D.J. “Police be everywhere — plain cars and cars with the cherries on top. Nights, mornings, afternoons. They done beefed it up. We noticed big time.”

D.J. said he liked the additional presence.

“It’s cool with me,” he said on a recent sunny day, while standing near a front porch talking to two other men. “I don’t get in trouble. I look at it as a safety matter. It’s a positive thing.”

Forté said he thinks his program has made a difference and reduced violence. In its second week alone, police apprehended six homicide suspects in the target areas. And since the program launched Oct. 16, Kansas City had recorded only three homicides citywide through Thursday — or less than one a week, compared with an average of three per week from July through September.

“Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Thank you for doing something,’ ” Forté said Friday. “It’s overwhelming.”

But, he added, police still have a lot of work to do.

“There’s going to be peaks and valleys,” he said. “It would be premature to celebrate at this point.”

Friday night showed just how difficult the job will be: three people were killed on the city’s East Side.

Forté’s plan is flexible, allowing officers to saturate problem areas. Police commanders, meanwhile, are monitoring crime in areas outside the hot spots for any spikes.

“So far, there are no signs of displacement,” Forté said. “We definitely don’t want to take resources for one area and cause problems in another.”

Forté hasn’t publicly identified the boundaries of the target areas because he wants to keep criminals guessing.

“The criminals don’t tell us where they’re going to be,” he wrote on his blog last week, “and we don’t want to do them any favors.”

Forté also has directed officers to pay special attention to drug- and gang-related shooting victims who refuse to prosecute whoever shot them.

“They want to take justice into their own hands, and this just perpetuates violence,” Forté wrote.

Police encourage victims to deal with their issues through the legal system, he said, but “if they still refuse, we will stay on them, doing everything within the law to keep them away from the person against whom they seek revenge, even if that means arresting them for jaywalking to get them off the street. We cannot let violent feuds continue, catching innocent people in the cross-fire and destroying communities.”

In addition, officers are trying to be more visible and engaging.

“Normally, police don’t have many positive contacts,” said Sgt. John Frazier, who works in the eastern part of the city. “Normally, we don’t stop and talk to people. That’s what we’re trying to change. The chief has made it pretty clear he wants to reduce crime in these high-crime areas. We need to build up that trust again.”

Traditionally, patrol officers have had “almost zero contact” with law-abiding citizens, Frazier said. He said he was surprised to learn that some of his younger fellow officers grew up in troubled areas that he used to patrol. He never knew them because they never caused trouble.

“You think you know everyone on a block, but you just know the victims and the suspects,” he said.

Police traditionally have measured success through arrest statistics, but Forté said he also wants officers to value positive interaction with the public. That’s why this week, police commanders tracked officers’ positive contacts with residents, such as giving directions, chatting at a barbershop, or knocking on doors to meet residents.

Officers also now can write warnings instead of traffic violation tickets — something rarely done before the switch to a new e-ticketing system in August. The system keeps track of the warnings so officers know when a driver already has gotten a break on a violation or repeatedly used the same excuse.

Traffic officer Tyler White enjoys the broader discretion.

“We’re trying to give more warnings in these areas,” he said. “We’re trying to be more understanding.”

This week, White cruised Independence Avenue and pulled over a car without a license plate or temporary tag. The driver wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and hadn’t changed her driver’s license from her previous address in Utah.

But the driver explained she had just purchased the car hours earlier and she showed White the freshly signed title. White wrote her several warnings. She thanked him.

“Ninety-percent of the time, they’ll fix the violations,” White said. “At least we’re giving them a chance to fix them.”

Within a few minutes, White spotted another vehicle without a license plate.

“It’s like no-license-plate day,” White said as he pulled over the van, which had an expired temporary tag displayed in its rear window. It turned out that a dealership had given the driver — a young mother of three boys — the expired tag, so White wrote her a warning.

Tom Bibbs, a board member for the Palestine Neighborhood Development Corp., said he hasn’t heard any complaints of police harassment or grumblings about additional traffic officers working the neighborhoods.

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion about that, but people see the difference,” he said, referring to the apparent slowing of crime in the area. “They know this is what they’ve got to do.”

The only complaints heard by Barbara Johnson, who works at the Palestine center, have come from criminals’ parents or grandparents, she said. Johnson added she hoped the extra attention continued.

“We want that,” she said.

Rick Jones, who lives in the Indian Mound neighborhood in the Northeast area, said he likes the “tack the new chief is taking.”

“We’ve heard this all before, but I have confidence he means it,” Jones said. “Building relationships with the community is going to be what solves these problems. We can help the police do what they need to do.”