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Keeping the peace

photos by Wayne Armstrong

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.”

The professor & activist 

Photo by Wayne Armstrong

Tear gas canisters popped like a starting gun. And as an ominous smoke cloud enveloped her, stung her, suffocated her, Apryl Alexander ran.

She sprinted down an alley, away from Colorado’s gold-domed Capitol, where hundreds of people were protesting racial inequality and police brutality after the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Nearly blinded by the burning chemical agent, she found relief when some allies doused her with milk.

“I’ve been to direct action trainings [on tear gas] before,” Alexander told Colorado Public Radio the next day. “But I never imagined I would actually endure it.”

Then again, Alexander, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, never imagined she would be an activist at all.

With DU intent on blurring the boundaries between campus and community, Alexander is leading the leap from the “ivory tower” of yore into the hands-on world of engaged service outlined in the University’s strategic plan, DU IMPACT 2025.

“I always say I hate for my research articles to just sit on a shelf,” says Alexander, whose expertise lies, broadly, where psychology meets the legal system. “That’s not helpful to anyone. How can I use my science to get out there and make a difference?”

Since her 2016 arrival at DU, the answer has been multifaceted. Her work has put her in front of legislators at the state capitol and, through the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning, in front of the community. It has put her backstage, as co-founder of the DU Prison Arts initiative, and on center stage at a TEDx event. She has marched outside the City and County Building as an organizer of Black Lives Matter 5280 and sat inside on the city’s Citizen Oversight Board, which serves as a watchdog for local law enforcement. 

Her research has been equally comprehensive. A new grant will allow her to work with girls involved in the juvenile justice system, ensuring interventions are sensitive to their gender and culture.

As COVID-19 blanketed the U.S., Alexander beamed a light on the prison system’s unhealthy conditions and inadequate health care. Her findings suggested that efforts like compassionate release for inmates with terminal illnesses or disabilities could combat overcrowding and stymie the spread of the virus.

As a result, local and national news media see her as a go-to source on reforming law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

For a self-described introvert, it’s a career she never could have imagined: scholar, practitioner and activist.

Alexander grew up in an Air Force family, moving around the world every few years. 

Social issues came up only occasionally, but she does recall the “traditional” protective conversations so prevalent in Black households, those talks about how to stay safe if pulled over by the police. More vivid are memories of her parents’ volunteerism—mailing packages to members of the military overseas, inviting deployed airmen and airwomen to holiday dinners and pitching in at the Special Olympics. 

“I think that spirit of advocacy and helping community was always around me growing up,” she says. A lifelong love of animals pushed her into the pre-veterinary program at Virginia Tech, but that plan was sidelined after a volunteer experience at an off-campus women’s resource center in her first year.

Supporting sexual assault survivors both in-person and on the phone, plus a required psychology course, caused her to change her major and devote herself to working toward a world without victims.

When she arrived in Denver, with a PsyD and two master’s degrees, Alexander joined the Black Lives Matter movement and focused her research on the issues at hand. Her recent work has centered on the resilience of traumatized populations and the dynamics of protest—notably, the way the language used to describe them frames public perception.

She regularly questions the purpose of policies on criminal sentencing and imprisonment, while examining relationships between the police and local communities.

“Some of the recommendations that have been made in regard to reforming the criminal justice system or law enforcement are things we know don’t work in the [academic] literature.” she says. “I often challenge people: Let’s think of something new. Many of these efforts haven’t worked, and we have some science that does work, so let’s try it.”

Perhaps what makes Alexander most effective in her work is her humanity, says Ariel Lipscomb, executive liaison of BLM5280.

“She has that on-the-ground experience. She was out there with us at the protests all summer. She knows that trauma,” says Lipscomb, a friend and colleague since 2016. “But she can also apply that deeper analysis. I think that’s where the two worlds collide so beautifully in her. She knows that people are hurting, and she knows we need policy that makes space for us to heal.”

She knows and she acts. And after years of toil, her research on criminal justice reform is suddenly “trendy.”

The attention, however belated, has stoked her optimism for the future. 

 “I want to call you out and you’re late [to the movement],” she adds with a smile, “But welcome.”

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