A screen capture of a video showing Boulder resident Zayd Atkinson being rousted by police for picking up trash at his own home on March 1.
A screen capture of a video showing Boulder resident Zayd Atkinson being rousted by police for picking up trash at his own home on March 1.

Boulder and Racism: Why Distrust Runs So Deep for People of Color

The Boulder Police Department's investigation of a March 1 incident in which multiple gun-wielding cops hassled Zayd Atkinson, an African-American student who was picking up trash on his own property, has sparked plenty of debate about race, as well as a protest this past weekend in a city that's both politically liberal and overwhelmingly white.

But long before the incident went viral thanks to a video, people of color living in Boulder already looked upon local law enforcement and other agencies with considerably less trust than their Caucasian counterparts, as evidenced by a community survey made public mere weeks earlier.

Disparities between white respondents and people of color who participated in the analysis can be seen in responses about positive views of the Boulder police (84 percent to 70 percent), crime prevention (86 percent to 75 percent), emergency services (95 percent to 84 percent) and emergency preparedness (81 percent to 65 percent).

Such gaps come as no surprise to Marina La Grave, founder and executive director of Boulder-based Latin American Center for Arts, Science and Education, as well as a researcher, activist and victims' advocate who's worked in conjunction with the Boulder Police Department for a quarter-century.

Marina La Grave is the founder and executive director of the Latin American Center for Arts, Science and Education.
Marina La Grave is the founder and executive director of the Latin American Center for Arts, Science and Education.

"When it comes to law enforcement, if you happen to be brown, you are instantly profiled," La Grave says. "It's not because the police are bad, but because of the perceptions white people have toward people of color. If you see a white male in a white robe, you see a doctor. But if you see a person of color in a white robe, you see someone working behind a counter. And if you have an accent you're not viewed as having an education."

She offers as an example her recent efforts to serve as a conduit between Boulder's Latino community and electees working on an affordable-housing project.

"These Latino families feel really vulnerable," she notes. "It's taken us two years to get them to the comfort level where they're able to talk to city officials. At one of our last meetings with city council, these Latinos said, 'We don't trust you. Can we trust you?' The city is putting money behind these efforts, but you have to realize, we people of color in Boulder are pretty much surrounded by white people. And these white people may be wanting to help us. But we often feel that if you come to help me, you can go — but if you come to work with me, then we can do something."

There's a different dynamic when it comes to interactions between Boulder police and people of color even when the situation doesn't reach the extremes captured in the aforementioned video of Atkinson, seen below.

"Imagine yourself as a person of color who's a victim of crime and the police come in," La Grave suggests. "Do you feel they're coming to protect you, or do you feel more vulnerable because they came? You feel more vulnerable. You feel like, 'Oh, my God, I don't have my Social Security number. Are they going to ask me about that?' There are so many fears — all these layers and layers of fears that have been built up."

Such reactions present a challenge for authorities, says Boulder City Council member Sam Weaver. When it comes to the survey results, "there are two issues: perception and reality," he says. "And they're both important to look at. If people are not actually seeing a disparity in levels of service — and we can hopefully look at that through response times and how people are treated — then we just have to work at the perception side of things. But if perception is telling us about reality, we have to look at that."

In 2016, attempts by the consulting firm Hillard Heintze to do just that were far from conclusive. For instance, the document, described as "an independent analysis of police data and review of professional police complaint processes," couldn't confirm that police stopped minorities more frequently than white people because "stop-related data is non-existent" and "no records are available on investigative actions during traffic stops."

Likewise, the authors found that "reporting and data capture on race and ethnicity is inconsistent" in part because the department "permits officers to list a person's race as 'unknown.'" And because the space can be left blank, too, the item points out, "most people of Hispanic origin were listed as white on field interview cards rather than white of Hispanic origin."

Boulder City Council member Sam Weaver is concerned about the survey results.
Boulder City Council member Sam Weaver is concerned about the survey results.

Nonetheless, Hillard Heintze found that "bias was evident in BPD traffic and misdemeanor citations," with an African-American found to be approximately twice as likely to be busted or ticketed as would be expected based on Boulder's demographics.

Because of such findings, Weaver says, Boulder has "entered a phase where we're trying to raise our game in this area in terms of being a welcoming community to all people, including people of color." One example of that has been recent training city council members and staffers have gone through that included "the history of differential treatment of people of color. We also talked about housing and the challenges for people of color around older practices like redlining. It brought a historical lens to conversations about race. It's a difficult subject, but people like myself have taken time to learn more about it — and it's been a pleasure to get better educated on it."

That's a good start, La Grave believes, but she feels much more needs to be done. According to her, "People in the government and police officers really need to be trained in inter-culturality. We really have to educate every leader, every agency, everyone on city council. They really need to understand how to address diversity and what that means to others. The training has to be ongoing; it can't just be Interculturality 101 and you're out the door."

And then there's the matter of representation. "Where are the Latinos and African-Americans we should be seeing on city council and the police department and all those agencies?" La Grave asks. "Where are the diverse members of those agencies who should be the role models our young people look at? We don't have enough people in those positions. And until we start inviting people of color to the table, the dialogue will be the same."

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