At The Crossroads February 17, 2022

“There Are Clearly Spaces Where Law Enforcement Does Not Belong”: A Conversation with Tracie Keesee

By Greg Berman

Dr. Tracie L. Keesee

Tracie L. Keesee has been a serial trailblazer. 

The first African American commander in the Denver Police Department. 

Denver’s first female police captain. 

The first deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). 

And the cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity, an organization dedicated to reducing racial disparities and promoting cultural change within American police departments. 

All told, Dr. Keesee has spent more than three decades thinking about police-community relations. Throughout her career, she has sought to advance what she calls “the co-production of public safety.” Dr. Keesee believes that police cannot create neighborhood safety by themselves. She has argued that police need to cede authority to communities in ways that departments have traditionally resisted. This includes listening to community voices who want to narrow the scope of police activity.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Dr. Keesee contributed an opinion piece to The Washington Post entitled “After this crisis, policing should never be the same.” In it, she wrote, “As the deaths of Black men and women continue to mount and the collective pain of a community boils over, some argue that improving policing is pointless—that we’d be better off defunding departments entirely. I can sympathize; this is difficult and, at times, discouraging work. But on the other side of this crisis, we will still need policing in some form. We should strive to align it with the values of communities as much as possible.”

In the fall of 2021, Dr. Keesee spoke with Greg Berman, the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, about race and policing. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Berman: I’m curious to hear how the past couple of years have felt for you given the various cross-cutting identities that you inhabit — former police official, Black woman, reformer, grandmother, etc. What has it been like to walk in your shoes over the past twelve to twenty-four months?

Keesee: I would tell you that the number one thing that always comes out of my mouth is that it continues to be exhausting. For most of us who are in these intersections, it has been increasingly heavy over the last two years. 

There is a lot of eagerness right now to understand how race is showing up and implicating criminal justice and law enforcement. But this work is hard. You have to be able to understand the different perspectives and try to help folks think through ways that we can move forward. 

I am a part of a broader community that has historically experienced injustice. There are millions of people across this country who look like me and carry this burden of Blackness. It is both a joy and a burden. And it is weighing on me in ways that only Black police officers, and Black female police officers, would understand. 

And then when you compound it with this pandemic that no one saw coming and that a lot of folks were not ready for…it makes you reevaluate what you believe about yourself and what you believe about others. So it’s been heavy. It’s exhausting and it’s tiring. You can burn out quickly if you don’t do self-care. 

Rewind for me: why did you join the police force to begin with?

That was thirty-something years ago. I was looking for a job with benefits. I was a single parent at the time, and I needed to find something that provided a bit of stability and medical insurance. I come from a family of uniformed folks, but not in the policing realm. A military family. And my mother was a nurse. So we always have had this ethic of service that you should be doing something.

When I sat down to take the police test, I was twenty-five and I needed a job. I was born and raised in Denver. I applied to three places actually—Denver, Houston, and Colorado Springs. This would’ve been in 1989. My mother narrowed my options down really quickly saying, “One, you’re not moving to Houston, and two, you’re not moving to Colorado Springs.” Luckily enough, I got the call from Denver. And so that started my career. 

I had an opportunity to serve my community and I did. I am one of the lucky ones, in that I was the commander of the district where I grew up. That was a big honor. But it also meant that a thousand eyes were on me, including my parents. 

How do you think being a part of the police department changed you as a person?

It changed me in profound ways. It provided me with a huge learning opportunity, sort of a lab to do different things, to think about what’s happening and what are the determinants of crime. If it were not for the Denver PD, I would not be the person I am. I also would not have been prepared to go somewhere else and begin to try to have these conversations in a different way. So I honor my experience, because it has shaped me. 

Whenever we have tragic events, the first thing that comes out of everyone's mouth is, “Well, they should do more training.” And that is not always going to be the appropriate answer... But one of the things that we still have not gotten really good at is doing long-term evaluations to see how people use their training.

When you look back on your career, you can see that you’ve grown in many different ways. I was able to meet just incredible people. But I was also exposed to the other side of things, people who were just downright nasty, racist, and misogynistic, where you wonder how some of these people can get into the uniform.

But, as I tell a lot of folks, I’m grateful for my career. I had somebody ask me if I would do it again. And I said, of course I would. I absolutely would. For me, the experience was definitely on the joyous side and the plus side. It was a pleasure. I enjoyed it. 

How would you compare and contrast your experience in the Denver PD to the NYPD? Denver isn’t exactly a small town, but I would imagine that the NYPD is a whole different kind of ecosystem to operate within.

When you talk about the fundamentals, all departments have a lot in common. What is different is the culture within each department. The thing that struck me about NYPD is that it is very, very rich in tradition. There is a tremendous amount of reverence for that tradition. I learned that NYPD is a really large family. Of course, as with many families, there are dysfunctional uncles. But there are also people within the NYPD who are doing beautiful things in the community, trying very hard to provide safety. 

You have to recognize the scale of the NYPD. When you are that size, you have to have processes and systems. In smaller agencies, you can do pilots much quicker. In very large organizations, it is hard for a commissioner to push change all the way down to the precinct level. There are exceptions to the rule, but most commissioners and chiefs only last four years on average. You can only get so much done in four years. And so that means that you have to prioritize. When you have commissioners that only last three or four years, the community’s expectations have to be managed about how much movement and change you can really make in four years.

I would say you get resistance to change no matter where you are because we’re cops, and we don’t want to change, period. I think in your larger organizations, it is a bigger challenge because you have folks who either don’t want to know or who are confused about what you’re asking them to do. 

When you were at the NYPD, you oversaw the department’s training program. I was wondering whether you could help me make sense of how to think about the potential impacts of training.  Obviously, we should be training officers for the roles we want them to play and the values we want them to embody. But a lot of the research I have been reading recently about implicit-bias training and anti-racist training induces skepticism about how effective it is in actually changing people’s behavior. So I guess my question to you is this: what should we reasonably expect of police training?

It’s a good question. Whenever we have tragic events, the first thing that comes out of everyone’s mouth is, “Well, they should do more training.” And that is not always going to be the appropriate answer.

One application of training is not going to give you the outcomes that I think people are looking for. Training for police officers is not always evidence-based. In some cases, folks are doing what we might call check-the-box, liability training, to protect themselves in case something bad happens. 

We need to make sure we have the right people doing the right jobs. Once you do that, you can then begin to design your training around what outcomes you would like to see. We historically have not done outcome-based training. That has changed over the past ten to fifteen years. But one of the things that we still have not gotten really good at is doing long-term evaluations to see how people use their training.

You are now hearing some of the same conversations that happened in the ‘90s, that we are going to need more officers to get spiking crime under control. I think we need to be very careful about this.

We assume a lot. We assume that people leave the academy and eventually go on the streets and that all of their training is intact. That’s not necessarily the case. We really have not been clear about how officers are implementing their training. But body-worn cameras now allow you to go in and see if officers are using their training or not. This technology has really begun to move police training in ways which we just have not thought about before. 

I would also say that the environment in which police learn is pretty important. Not everyone has an academy like NYPD. I don’t think the community understands that a lot of police organizations don’t have facilities like that. In smaller departments, if they get training once a year, they’re lucky. 

There are a lot of things we have to look at. We have to look at whether the training is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And then there is the actual officer. What is going on with that individual? How have they digested the training? Are there non–work related issues that are going on with that individual that may be complicating the way that they’re showing up at work? And that is just something we’ve historically never talked about. When you got sick, you still showed up for work. If you were going through a divorce, you showed up for work. If someone was terminally ill in your family, you showed up for work. You’ve got officers who are traumatized and the culture and the way in which we deal with that is still not healthy. So, for me, training is helpful for a lot of things but there’s also some real deep-dive questions still to be asked.

Do you have a take on why we’ve seen shootings go up in New York and other cities over the past year or two?

You have these conditions on the ground that are happening. You have a country that has a tremendous amount of firearms. You also have people who have been locked down. People have lost their jobs and they don’t have health care and they’re trying to feed their children and care for themselves and their mental health issues. You’ve got people who are desperate and they don’t have anything to lose. I think you also have parts of the community who are telling us that this has been happening for decades, that there’s been a lack of investment in people who are most in need. 

You are now hearing some of the same conversations that happened in the ‘90s, that we are going to need more officers to get spiking crime under control. I think we need to be very careful about this. I 100-percent believe that there are occasions where you need to have someone who’s armed respond to a call for service. That is my experience. And that is just what it is. But what the community is also asking for—not all communities, but some—what they’re asking for is a lot of investment in prevention and a lot of focus on the social needs that people have and making sure that those things are also taken care of. 

It is going to be interesting. We are seeing conversations about how to define public safety. Typically, the first thing you think about public safety is law enforcement. But when you talk to the community about it, the community is not thinking about law enforcement as the first priority for public safety. For them, public safety means housing security. It means food security. It means health care. They want to get those things in alignment and make sure that armed response personnel are not the primary thing you go to when you talk about public health safety. A lot of folks are trying different ways to get to that promise. Those types of experiments are what you’re watching play out in Minneapolis and a lot of other places as well.

In the op-ed that you wrote for The Washington Post last year, you expressed sympathy for those who argue for defunding the police, but also said that for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need policing to continue to exist. I don’t know if it’s how you intended it, but I read the piece as you trying to carve a path in between the abolitionists, on the one hand, and the people that believe we have to back the police, no matter what, on the other. I’m wondering what kind of response you got to the piece. 

For me, it’s about finding a way to have a conversation where you don’t have to pick one or the other. There are clearly spaces where law enforcement does not belong. Because of the historical relationship with Black communities, I get it. I understand the concerns about calling 911. Why would you want to call somebody who comes to you, and you end up either hurt or dead? Every day folks are calling 911, and people are getting hurt, people are getting victimized. 

What’s happening now is that there is a real conversation about alternative ways to respond. Take domestic violence. When I became an officer, there was no mandatory arrest policy for domestic violence. Then you had a movement and activism around mandatory arrest. Fast forward to today, when you have conversations with community members about domestic violence responses. In communities of color, the question is: why are the police coming? Because when they come, they set up a chain of things that happen that are not helpful for the family. 

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a real awakening about how governments are providing service to their community and whether or not there's a political appetite to do what needs to be done for the good of communities. It is creating a tremendous amount of stress for service providers on the ground and for cops on the ground.

I can tell you as a police officer, I was really surprised to hear that. There are community members that do not believe police officers should be the first ones to respond to a domestic situation. And me, I’m thinking, some domestics are very violent. I question how you set it up where you have a service provider walk into a household that may be violent. But those are the kinds of conversations we are having today. The community is asking whether the mandatory arrest policy impacts women and men of color more so than anyone else and whether it is helpful in protecting individuals and family.

You have to allow space for these types of conversations. It’s what we’ve done for the last thirty years. Is it doing what we wanted it to do? Is it having an impact that we never anticipated? And if so, what other things should we be doing? I say all this recognizing that you have folks that absolutely don’t want that effort changed. You have to look at it from different perspectives and different lived experiences.

But the community is saying we need to take a deeper dive and really begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. And when we start really thinking about alternatives, it triggers other issues. It triggers issues of power. It triggers issues of who gets served. It triggers budget issues. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a real awakening about how governments are providing service to their community and whether or not there’s a political appetite to do what needs to be done for the good of communities. It is creating a tremendous amount of stress for service providers on the ground and for cops on the ground. 

We’ve got to figure out a way to begin to shift things and provide service in a different way. And it doesn’t have to be the same in every community. What I’m talking about is customizing public safety for the neighborhood. How do communities define what it means to be safe, and how do we fund that to make sure that they have the safety that they need? 

Talk to me about the history of policing in this country. Some people argue that American policing grows out of slave patrols. And then you have people like former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton who say that the roots of modern policing in the U. S. are in ideas that were first raised in England in the 19th century. Part of me thinks that this is just an academic debate, but part of me actually thinks that it is important to get this right, because it has implications for how we see our current problems with policing. Do you have any thoughts about that?

It’s not one or the other. You need to learn the whole story, the whole experience. 

I had the pleasure and honor of working for Commissioner Bratton. I had many conversations with him about race and policing. He understands it. He gets it. He understands the whole ugly truth, the whole history. 

You hear conversations about Sir Robert Peel and the [19th-Century] principles of policing that were brought over to the United States [from Britain]. That is true. But the roots of how we manage Black bodies clearly comes from our history and from slave patrols. When we talk about the great migration and Black folks trying to leave the South to go North for a better life, they’re met with the exact same thing—they were told to stay in this neighborhood, don’t think about taking these jobs. It’s the same thing. 

This is what the conversations with police officers around race are about. They need to understand that slave patrols and Jim Crow laws and redlining—this is a part of our culture. Understanding that doesn’t mean you can’t also understand Robert Peel’s principles, which are, on their face, absolutely on point. Police are part of the community. But how those principles got implemented has been very erratic when you’re talking about policing in the United States.

One of the things that we have to be careful with is really trying to step over the bad part of our history. I think people often think when they hear talk about Jim Crow laws and things like that that it is ancient history, and why are we still talking about it. It is not ancient history. My mother is eighty-three. There are a lot of elders in our community who lived through this. This is not ancient history. 

I think that when people are uncomfortable, they have a tendency to want to move through it. And that’s not what’s being asked for here. What’s being asked is that you understand what that uniform represents in different communities and what it has meant historically. When you can do that, then you can spend time in the community and not feel that you need to control the room and control the narrative. We don’t teach how to listen in the academy, for the most part. That’s a hard tactic to learn — to sit, to take it in. It’s going to make you feel some kind of way. How do you manage that? How do you manage being uncomfortable? There used to be an effort to try to make cops feel comfortable around these types of topics. That’s not happening anymore. There’s pure exhaustion around trying to make somebody feel okay about what is wrong.

Black folks are not all monolithic, they’re not all thinking the same way. They’re not all in agreement. That means that you have to create spaces where you’re hearing from a tremendous number of people. And that is the challenge for a lot of chiefs right now: how do you provide service for multiple perspectives around public safety?

The Center for Policing Equity’s motto is “justice through science.” I’m curious about how the organization is navigating the current moment when it feels like you have some on the right who are questioning the very notion of science. And then on the left, you have some academics who won’t acknowledge that there’s evidence that policing can make a positive difference. Does that make the terrain complicated for your organization?

At CPE, we have under our roof social scientists, of course, but we also have activists, we have former police officers, we have people from the community. We have incredible people who have chosen to join CPE. Because we are science-based, our North Star is what we believe will work. We have very difficult conversations on both the left and on the right about what policing should look like. We pride ourselves to be able to have those kinds of conversations with everybody. We try to bring unlikely folks into the same space. For us, it is about what is best for the community, what is best for public safety, and what is best for the police officers. But some days are hard, really hard.

I’ve heard you say that the window of opportunity for change is only going to stay open for a short time. Are you feeling optimistic, pessimistic, or something in between when you think about the conversation about policing in this country?

I’m always going to be somewhere in between, because I’ve lived through these cycles before. I do think that for policing itself, as a profession, there’s some self-reflection that is happening. But for me, the question is at what level is that happening? Because there’s always been a political disconnect between what the chiefs may want versus what the folks on the ground who do this every day are asking for. And so there has to be some internal reckoning around who are we and what are we supposed to be and to who. 

Everybody wants the cops to be one way or another, but no one can give a straight answer when I ask them: what is their role? If their role is no longer to respond to X problem, then tell them that and train them for that. If their role is no longer to make low-level traffic stops, then tell them that, and train them for that. You also have to leave space for the human condition. In any employee setting, they’re going to be asking questions. And this is where we often find leadership breaks down. When officers ask, “Why are we doing this?” or, “What’s going on?,” oftentimes leadership can’t answer that question. There’s a void of silence.

I think that most cops have awareness of why we’re in this moment, but there’s still quite a few of them who don’t understand how we got here. And there are also some that don’t think it’s an issue and think this is something that was created just to divide folks. So I would tell you that many police chiefs today feel like they are walking through land mines. 

Over the next five to ten years, it’s going to be interesting to look back to see what is really different. I see the people on the ground who are committed to doing the work. There is a tremendous amount of heart and optimism on the ground that we will get to the other side and that it will look and feel different. And so I tend to latch onto that.

Greg Berman is the Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He previously served as the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years. His most recent book is Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press).

Views expressed are the participants’ own and not necessarily those of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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