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Bad cops; good cops

Photos by Wayne Armstrong

A conversation about police reform 

In separate conversations with the University of Denver Magazine, DU professor Apryl Alexander and alumna Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity fielded questions about police reform. 

What’s one thing police departments can do immediately to improve community relations and day-to-day policing?

Apryl Alexander: Hold police officers who have acted in bad faith accountable. That’s it. If you are acting in bad faith, you should be held accountable for your behaviors, as police expect of us. That would resolve so much of this.

Tracie Keesee: Right now, the biggest thing they can do is listen to what the community is asking for. Listening is already hard to do. It’s even harder when you have all of this emotion and divisiveness and stress. There’s not even a lack of trust, but no trust. We have a lot of traumatized people here on the police side and on the community side. We’re going to have to begin that process of feeling and managing our trauma, beginning to heal so we can listen and hear each other.

What’s something that makes reform challenging right now?

Alexander: Not everyone is on board. People don’t see these issues of excessive force as a problem, and communities are fearful. If somebody breaks into my house right now, what am I supposed to do? We’ve all been taught you call the police. But if I call the police and they show up and I’m seen as the bad guy, then what happens? I think that’s the conversation we’re having both locally and nationally.

Keesee: The word “reform,” for one, [is a challenge] because everyone has different understandings of it. Some folks see reform as something that’s been going on for the last 30-something-odd years and yet you’re getting the same result. What is it we want? What are we striving for? Not only do we have to identify that, we have to have a common language to talk about it. We have to have a roadmap to get to it. All of those things require people to come to the table and begin to sit in spaces to hear and to listen.

Another obstacle to this is money. Right now, when you look at how we are hit by this pandemic, city and county budgets are going to be severely impacted. 

Alexander: We had some community policing programs back in the early-to-mid-’90s. And then what happened? When funding needs to get cut, they cut those programs. A bunch of communities are looking at their city budget and saying, “Oh my gosh, why are we spending so much on chemical weapons against protesters but not on our schools or not on mental health and substance abuse treatment?”

Keesee: We’re hearing alternatives of not having police respond in certain spaces. I’m in agreement with that, but you also have to pay folks to do that work. If there is no budget for that work, you can’t just take money from police and push it to them. People are still getting victimized; violent crime is happening. It’s not as if you can just turn away from one and focus on the other.

Are there any misconceptions about policing today or the movement to reform policing?

Keesee: Oh, I think there are on both sides. I think there are some
narratives that have historically been in place that continue to show themselves today that oftentimes won’t allow folks to move forward. But the one thing everyone seems to be in agreement with is they want to be safe, they want to be free to go home, and they really want to make sure that when they need help, it comes in a way that does not disproportionately impact them.

Alexander: I think people underestimate some of the incidences of excessive force that are happening in our communities. Fifty-eight percent of transgender folks have experienced harassment by police, whether that’s verbal harassment, name calling, misgendering, all the way to sexual assault. I think people think these things happen in isolation—and statistically they do; they are fairly rare incidents of excessive force—but when they happen, can we get police officers out of the line of duty?

What does the end goal look like to you?

Keesee: At the end, it is not even a system so to speak, but it is a process. It is an experience that leaves people feeling as if they’re human, that whatever the issue is has been resolved in a way that is acceptable to that individual or group of individuals and that it does not leave historical harm. Hopefully we’ll be able to say, “This is what public safety looks like for neighborhoods or individuals or groups and it is something that is designed by those individuals or is what those individuals were asking for.”

Alexander: Do we have a community in which everybody feels safe and protected? That’s outside of even just the issue of policing. We’re out there supporting unhoused folks right now. We’re out there thinking about how we support individuals with mental illness who are not getting access to treatment. So when I talk about a world where everyone feels safe, it is addressing all of the societal issues that are making the world uncomfortable for so many people.

How long do you think it’s going to take before we see meaningful change?

Alexander: I’m not sure. This has been a fight that’s been around for centuries. Policing started with slave patrols, so we’ve been having these conversations for a long time. That’s the question we’re having this year: How do we undo centuries of harm?

Keesee: I’ve had a lot of people ask, “What changes have been made?” It’s really interesting to have that question asked, because we didn’t get here overnight, and I think it’s kind of disingenuous to have people pick something in 90 days. That’s not how it works. Hopefully we will see some changes on the ground sooner rather than later, but I think to get a full sense of how things are really different, it’s probably going to be five to 10 years out.

Alexander: This year gave me more hope. People showed up. People understood that what they saw in that video of George Floyd was wrong. I think and hope that this year was a turning point in that conversation. My fear is that … we’ll have a vaccine in eight months and forget everything that’s happened in 2020, how COVID-19 collapsed our whole system, how we did come together in support of Black lives this year. ϑ

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