Are cops more trigger-happy when aiming guns at minorities? That's not a new question, though it's certainly one being asked more frequently as protests have rolled across the country since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Last month, >USA Today reported that police in Ferguson arrested black people at a rate nearly three times higher than that of people of other races -- and the stats for at least twenty law enforcement agencies across Colorado are nearly as bad, the paper says, with the Lakewood Police Department ranking the worst.
As concern over racial profiling grew, in September, outgoing attorney general Eric Holder announced the creation of the Justice Department's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a consortium of organizations that will use a $4.75 million federal grant to push for both research and results. "The events in Ferguson reminded us that we cannot allow tensions, which are present in so many neighborhoods across America, to go unresolved," Holder said. "As law enforcement leaders, each of us has an essential obligation -- and a unique opportunity -- to ensure fairness, eliminate bias, and build community engagement."
That's something that Tracie Keesee recognized more than a decade ago.
Back in 2002, when she'd been a member of the Denver Police Department for thirteen years, she spotted a small story about a University of Colorado study demonstrating that participants playing a virtual-simulation scenario were quicker to fire at black male figures than whites. Keesee was not only a cop, but a University of Denver graduate student working toward a degree in criminal justice who had deep roots in Denver's African-American community, and she contacted the CU Stereotyping and Prejudice Lab to find out more. It turned out that the researchers had tried to involve actual police departments in their research but kept getting turned down. Keesee thought a study on the use of deadly force and how it impacts people of color, especially African-Americans, could be very relevant for large police organizations -- but she also understood why those organizations might not want outside researchers to come in and explore such "hot-button topics" as race bias and the use of deadly force. Even so, Keesee brought up the study with then-DPD chief Gerald Whitman, who not only agreed to sit down with the researchers, but ultimately agreed to the DPD's participation in the research.
The results of that study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in July 2007, in a paper titled "The Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot." As with the earlier CUSP study, community members displayed a greater willingness to shoot an African-American target than a white one. But while police officers still displayed discrepancies in speed of response depending on race, the study determined that they did not make the ultimate decision to shoot based on a target's color. In fact, training not only affected whether they chose to fire at a target, but it made them less likely to shoot on the basis of race.
The DPD and the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance held a press conference to announce the results, but no local outlets covered it, despite the fact that "whenever you read the newspaper, whether it be New York or Chicago or Denver, it continues to be a very prevalent question." That's what Keesee told us in April 2008, when Westword published "Target Practice," Jared Jacang Maher's cover story about the CU study's work with the DPD.
More than six years later, the question is just as relevant. And in the interim, Keesee has appeared in Westword many more times -- most recently as a contributing writer covering the fashion beat as she picked up yet another advanced degree, this one a master's in fashion journalism. She went for the fashion degree after Mayor Michael Hancock passed her over -- she was touted as the top internal candidate -- and instead tapped Robert White, then chief of police in Louisville, as Denver's next police chief.
But even as she pursued that degree and others during vacation and personal time, Keesee continued to serve her home town as a cop, continued to stay in touch with the community. Next month, though, she'll plant her fashionable boots in New York City, where she'll be based at the John Jay College for Criminal Justice, as project director of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice that Holder announced this fall.
As co-founder of the seven-year-old Center for Policing Equity at UCLA, Keesee has been a go-to source for national media outlets on policing all fall. But we haven't heard from her much in Denver, where White demoted her from division chief to captain in early 2012. "I figure if they need me, they'll call me," she says of the local media. "I'm constantly in touch with people on the ground."
And staying in touch with people on the ground is critical. "You hear about transparency, trust and respect from both the community and the police. We all have different definitions of what justice is, what transparency is," she says. "You have to have some common ground. You see that with the protests; they don't believe that common ground exists anymore."
Finding and defining that common ground will be key. "This conversation [was] going on prior to Ferguson," she says. "We know the real work is on the ground.... You keep hearing about relationships between communities. There's a different kind of policing between communities of color and those that are not."
Identifying those differences will be just part of the job of the new national institute. The consortium tackling that task includes not only the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but also the Yale Law School, the CPE and the Urban Institute in partnership with the Justice Department, working with a board of advisers that includes national leaders from law enforcement, academia and faith-based groups, as well as community stakeholders and civil-rights advocates. The group will provide training for law enforcement and communities on bias reduction and procedural fairness at five pilot sites around the country; it will also establish a clearinghouse where information, research and technical assistance will be readily available to law enforcement and communities alike. "It a really holistic approach to this issue that's breaking nationally," Keesee says. "You have a large swath of the population that believes the system isn't working for them -- and police are the most visible arm of that."
Although Keesee says she hasn't seen tensions at this level before, her mother, who's in her seventies, has; in fact, that was one of the reasons she was concerned when Keesee decided to become a cop 25 years ago. Keesee had originally thought about going to law school, but by the time she was 25 and a single mother, her dream was to go to New York City to be a designer -- until her parents talked her out of that. Her father had been in the military and her mother was a nurse, and Keesee thought that becoming a police officer was a good way for her to continue the family's tradition of public service while providing for herself and her daughter. She applied to three departments and decided to go with Denver, to stay close to home. "When I told my mother, she was beside herself -- she was not happy," Keesee remembers. "I wasn't thinking of the fact that my mother was from Detroit and her mother had been raised in the South. Her experiences with police were not good -- and what she had witnessed had stuck with her." Keesee's mother wasn't just concerned with her daughter's safety on the job; she was worried about what would happen to her inside the organization. But as her daughter moved through the ranks without incident, her mother "settled down somewhat."
There were tough days, of course, including one time when Keesee was called on to protect the Klan during a protest. "That's what this whole thing is today -- a First Amendment right," she says. "We've all been in these really uncomfortable situations, but that's the law."
Cities across the country are now calling for community conversations around race -- like the "Race & Justice in the Mile High City" discussion that Mayor Michael Hancock will hold from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Friday, December 19, at the Colorado History Center, followed by more in January. "Just having the conversation is a big first step," says Keesee. "You have to make sure you have everybody at the table. This is about truly hearing from those folks who are being marginalized. There are going to be hard things to hear, and how you listen is key."
But that's just the start of the job. "Equally important to the conversation on race and policing are the solutions that are created between the community and the police," Keesee says. At the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, she'll be part of that solution. "Now, here I am, 25 years later, going to New York," she says. "You do 25 years for a place that's taken care of you, you want to leave something behind. For me, it was a legacy issue." The legacy she started with her work on the CU racial profiling study, with her co-founding of the CPE, is now a legacy that could pay off for the entire country. But she's not forgetting the city she's served so long.
"Denver's my home," she says. "I'll always be watching."
Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.