By Matt Watson
In July 2014, cellphone video captured Eric Garner’s final words as a New York City police officer held the African American man in a chokehold: “I can’t breathe.” This past May, cellphone video again captured the last words of an African American man killed in police custody: “I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd, as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
The cases feel both different and similar to pioneering law enforcement veteran Tracie Keesee, Ph.D., a 1997 graduate of then-Metropolitan State College of Denver.
“My heart is heavy for George Floyd’s family,” she said.
In both cases, citizens protested the documented police brutality against African Americans. But nearly six years after Garner’s death in a police chokehold, the size, scope and intensity of the protests following Floyd’s killing are noticeably greater. Likewise, four Minneapolis police officers were fired and charged with crimes within 10 days of Floyd's death, while the New York police officers involved in Garner’s death were never charged. The officer found to have held Garner in a prohibited chokehold was fired by the New York Police Department in August 2019 — more than five years after the incident — following a federal investigation, a Staten Island district attorney investigation, and an administrative trial.
“What we’ve got going on throughout the country is what I call ‘generational exhaustion,’” Keesee said. “There’s no way that we are going to come to the other side of this and think that policing is still going to remain the same.”
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Watching this week’s protests – and police actions against protesters – has confirmed that policing will require a different kind of leadership and community engagement.
“No one’s condoning rioting, and no one will ever condone it, but what we have a tendency of doing is letting (rioting be) the distraction,” Keesee said. “There’s a reason why people are in the streets.”
Keesee is a 25-year veteran of the Denver Police Department who now serves as the senior vice president of justice initiatives for the nonprofit Center for Policing Equity. She is no stranger to bringing change to police departments. Keesee was the first female police captain in Denver, the first African American woman to rise to the rank of division chief in Denver and the first deputy commissioner of equity and inclusion for the New York City Police Department.
Police reform has been a priority for Keesee since 2008, when she and Phillip Atiba Goff founded the Center for Policing Equity, which is based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where Goff is a professor.
“If you think about all the last 50 years of police ‘reform,’ which is a word I don't even use anymore, and the billions of dollars that have gone into it … We're still here, in the same place. So it can't be the same anymore,” she said.
The center partners with police departments across the country to advance “justice through science,” Keesee said. Her team reviews use-of-force incidents, traffic stops and other data that law enforcement agencies collect. It is funded by grants and philanthropy so departments (and taxpayers) aren’t perceived to be paying for answers to policing problems.
The future of this field is analysis on data such as body-camera footage. The untapped resource, Keesee said, is not the footage of arrests and high-profile incidents that already gets reviewed, but the hours of mundane interactions between police and their communities.
“There is so much richness in how those everyday interactions go, both good and bad, that can be used to really demonstrate to officers and their communities what we are talking about when we ask, ‘What should an encounter between an officer and citizen truly look like?’” she said.
The community piece is central to the future of policymaking and police work because decisions can no longer be made without diverse voices at the table, Keesee said.
“The challenge is, you’re really trying to work within a system that was designed to do something different,” she said. “How do you provide public safety to communities of color that doesn’t feel as if you’re occupying (those communities)? You can’t do this work without understanding the historical implications of what’s happened before.”
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