Keeping the peace

Meet the alumna and professor working for better law enforcement

The police officer, grandmother & visionary 

Tracie Keesee did her time, so to speak. 

She joined the Denver Police Department in 1989, became its first African American commander, then its first female captain, then its first Black female division chief. She logged the hours in the classroom too, graduating from the University of Denver with a PhD in intercultural communications in 2008.

Photo by Wayne Armstrong

And then, in 2015, after putting in her 25 years, Keesee retired.

Well, in a sense.

“Forget about the Winnebago traveling around the world,” Keesee says, laughing. 

For this 57-year-old grandmother, the work isn’t done yet. In fact, during a year that saw a revolt against police brutality and racial inequality, Keesee’s job is just beginning. And as the co-founder and senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), it may be more important than ever.

“I do this because this is what I’m meant to do,” she says. “It’s my role and my duty and obligation to my community to make sure that things are different. I’m a grandmother right now of a granddaughter and a grandson. One’s a teenager and one’s 10, and I do not want them to have this conversation again in 30 years.

“This is my retirement. This is the moment in time when I feel like I’ve been most effective.”

Part of the reason why is timing. The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 precipitated a movement for change. But capitalizing on the political climate was also an exercise in preparation, a testament to the years of work CPE has done producing scientific, data-driven analyses of police disparities and forming the partnerships to remedy them.

The CPE’s collaborative approach, walking the narrowing tightrope between cops and their communities, reflects its co-founder’s own experience: She knows what it means to balance the trust of friends and family with the connotations that come with the police uniform. She understands how to negotiate the tension that arises when her relationships with police colleagues are tested by her desire to reform the way they do their jobs.

“The last nine months or so [of 2020] have been extremely difficult for me,” Keesee says. “I have friends who are chiefs and officers, and I also have people who are marching on the streets every day. I also understand what Black officers are going through right now. You join an organization because you want to do better. You want to help your community, [but] to hear and feel you’re complicit in what’s gone on is very difficult.”

Growing up in Denver’s Hampden Heights neighborhood, less than 5 miles from the DU campus, Keesee had little awareness of the cultural conflict that had festered for generations. She was focused first on becoming a fashion designer and moving to New York. Then she was fixated on law, reading away her Saturdays in the local library.

When she joined the police academy, she recalls, some friends made the conscious decision to lose touch. Her mother, influenced by her own unforgettable interactions with police, fretted over her daughter’s safety. Several times, Keesee had to stand in front of her community after a tragedy and answer questions about whether she and DPD trained their officers to kill Black men.

To better field these questions, Keesee began studying implicit bias in policing. Her research led to the founding of the CPE and, soon after, a job with the NYPD in New York City, where she served as deputy commissioner of training and, later, as deputy commissioner of equity and inclusion. In her three years on the job, she helped implement accountability systems to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

“She had a major impact on the largest police department in the country,” says Rodney Harrison, now chief of the NYPD’s detective bureau. “Her ideas helped us look at ourselves to be better, be more professional, be more respectful, and improve the things we did within the community that we’re here to serve.”

As Keesee moved on from the NYPD, she made sure to take the perspectives of her 36,000 coworkers with her. Theirs are some of the many opinions she’s considering as she searches for ways to improve the country’s policing model and resolve some of the distrust between officers and those they serve. 

Given her identity and experience, Keesee feels she is the perfect intermediary to navigate the rocky terrain. When understanding “the other side” is difficult, her perspective allows her to translate, in a way, for both police departments and communities of color.

“I get it. I understand it. I’m living it every day,” she says. “Folks of color learn early on that exhaustion isn’t an option. You need to focus on things that not only move yourself forward, but also make sure that you are accounting for things that may impact other people down the road.”

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