When two unarmed black men died at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, New York City last year, their deaths ignited such public outrage that Americans took to the streets, calling out what they believed was a systemic police culture of racism and violence toward minority communities.
From grassroots organizations to the U.S. Justice Department, which is investigating both cases for potential civil rights violations, the country is now evaluating how law enforcement can serve our communities fairly, and tackling how relations between both sides can begin to heal.
Tracie Keesee is co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at University of California, Los Angeles. The research institute’s social scientists help police departments across the country apply practices that improve racial equity in policing. To date, the center has provided research, consultation, and training to over a dozen police departments across the country.
Keesee, who worked 25 years in the Denver, Colo., police department, has a unique perspective on the problems and challenges law enforcement agencies face. She shared with the Epoch Times her thoughts on what constitutes just, responsible policing. The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Epoch Times: How does racial bias manifest in law enforcement?
Keesee: It doesn’t just happen in law enforcement. This is something that occurs in everyone, and that is probably the first thing people don’t really understand—that what you see happening and exhibiting in law enforcement happens in education, happens in healthcare.
Bias comes in several different ways: through media, through how we socialize, through our experiences. I think with the conversation happening today surrounding law enforcement is, how do we manage that? How are you aware that you have those things, and how do you begin to manage how they may show themselves in different encounters with community?
Epoch Times: How do you minimize such bias?
Keesee: It’s making sure that the policy is doing what you intended to do. You have policies through different law enforcement agencies, different cities and counties, but you want to make sure that the officers understand the law and the application of the law. A lot of times training helps with that as well. You put in checks and balances to make sure those policies are being implemented in a fair and equitable way.
Epoch Times: What are some of those checks and balances?
Keesee: We look at supervision, how instructions are given. You also go back and do an audit of the work, and make sure those things are being implemented.
Epoch Times: What have you learned about fair policing from the center’s research?
Keesee: The first thing we learned is, training is important. Not just training on its face, but effective training, that has been proven.
We also have learned from the social scientists that policies are also going to have an enormous impact, and making sure that the impact of those policies don’t have that adverse effect on the community.
The other part we’ve seen as well is the critical importance of collaboration. Not just internal collaboration and community members, but you have to figure out, how do you engage with those who feel disenfranchised by law enforcement?
We all define community differently. That’s what we noticed as well, you have to make sure that community is very inclusive. And make sure you identify people who are not on the table.
Spurring off of this is the national initiative to build community trust and justice, a lot of those policy pieces and research are going to be put in active place, so we can measure on a larger scale, what things that work very well, and what has an adverse impact.
Epoch Times: How do you get disenfranchised people to talk to police?
Keesee: What you’re really talking about is trust. So we have community conversations, about what does equitable policing look like to you? Surprisingly, we all want the exact same thing. It’s just how do we come about it and do it so it’s fair and just, not just to the individual, but to the community.
For some, it’s not a comfortable experience, or they’re actually afraid. But you come to the table and speak with law enforcement. And with law enforcement, what they’ve had to be reminded to do, is to just listen. When you listen, those things can help inform how you do your enforcement. That is what you’ll be seeing as we move on as a nation.
To me, that’s critical. Typically we as law enforcement folks are very defensive about the actions we’ve often taken, but sometimes we just need to listen. Once you begin having these conversations, you’ll see the collaboration.
We also have organizational communication issues within law enforcement. You’ll have a command staff or chief who clearly understands what’s going on and what needs to be done, but then you have this disconnect with the troops on the ground, who don’t understand what and why this is happening.
It’s important for law enforcement to have those internal conversations as well, because what you then get is this disconnect on how the policy is implemented, or how it’s interfered with by folks who don’t understand or believe in what leadership has decided to do.
Epoch Times: How do you get the community to voice concerns to the police department?
Keesee: What we do is we organize forums. We connect with grassroots organizations on the ground locally, we work through them to use a community center, or a church.
We allow the community to decide who they’d like to have at the meeting. So it’s not uncommon that the community asks the chief to be there—not to be in the panel, but in the audience and listen to what’s going on.
It’s not just bash the police. People tend to think these community meetings go to that. But the majority of meetings we’ve attended, people are extremely supportive of law enforcement. The concern always stems around the small number of officers who when they do something wrong, just ruins it for the entire organization. There’s always concern around how come departments don’t deal with that?
Epoch Times: How can police departments make sure use of force is done safely and fairly?
Keesee: That’s going to vary from department to department, so a lot of them have use of force review boards that review each incident where force has been used or applied, then corrections are made, or [officers are] disciplined.
Epoch Times: Are the reviews usually done within the police department?
Keesee: Sometimes it’s done internally, sometimes there’s a use of force board comprised of community members and law enforcement. It’s very individualized and up to the department.
Epoch Times: Any anecdotal or empirical evidence to show which way works better?
Keesee: Ideally, when community members are part of that, that certainly helps with the legitimacy and trust of the department. The community members will understand how use of force is applied and when it’s applied, the circumstances of it.
Typically, as transparent as you can be, is always going to be the way to go. But you also have to be mindful that officers have rights that you have to protect. These are our employees. When something does happen, there’s going to be an investigation, and you have to be mindful not to contaminate the investigation.