Looking in the mirror

The Denver Police Department opened itself up for an outside researcher to embark on a process to thoroughly examine its operations and come up with better policing strategies. (See story, page 17.) Photo courtesy of the Denver Police Department.

The Denver Police Department opened itself up for an outside researcher to embark on a process to thoroughly examine its operations and come up with better policing strategies. (See story, page 17.) Photo courtesy of the Denver Police Department.

On the surface, the Denver Police Department seems like any other: an urban police force saddled with a history of controversial police shootings, excessive uses of force, and allegations of racial and gender discrimination.

But the department, led by Chief Gerry Whitman and Tracie Keesee, division chief of research, training and technology, is determined to make up for its lack of a squeaky clean record in a way that few others have tried before. It has opened itself up to an innovative, all-encompassing study, willing to see its scars and flaws–”especially in how it polices minority communities–”and vowed to follow through with substantive changes based on the study’s findings.

“You’re always dealing with the issue of race and equity and how you police communities of color,” Keesee said.

“That question that communities of color continually seem to ask, the elephant in the room: –˜Are you hiring people that are biased in how they police other communities?’ So we’ve kind of been on this quest ever since –¦ to try to answer some of those questions.”

In 2007, Keesee and Whitman found counsel in the form of Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. They enlisted Goff to head up a research project–”to examine the department as an outsider placed on the inside, a sort of fly-on-the-wall brought in to help reform the department’s tactics on hiring, training, retainment and policing.

Goff refused money from the department and is funded instead by his university–” along with his former employer, The Pennsylvania State University–” to avoid any bias. While a simple research project may not seem a novel concept, Goff’s work differs from any preceding study because of the scale and nature of his research.

As a social psychologist, Goff concentrates on finding the “mechanism” behind racist behaviors. He speaks of racism without racists, a seemingly contradictory concept that he says manifests itself in how the department handles activities such as training, traffic stops and uses of force. His research has included surveys, longitudinal correlational studies, experimental methodology, implicit attitude detection and simulated interactions.

“No one has been given this kind of access before–”this kind of transparency to both documents and to the officers themselves,” Goff said. “So in the first strain, what we’re trying to do is establish new best practices for how to create these collaborations and how to move forward on these issues that have been problems for a long time that nobody’s ever had the access to make a positive impact.”

But data and research themselves have not necessarily been followed by substantive reform in departments across the nation. By all accounts, such is not the case with Goff’s study. “I’ve seen the entire mechanisms of the city call me in, ask me what I think, and then move with that information in hand,” he said.

For example, the department moved when Goff investigated why about one out of four female officers dropped out of academy training and instituted a mentorship program that helped eliminate the problem.

Such follow-through is characteristic of Keesee, an African American who helped improve the department’s gun training program–”from simple target practice to one that incorporated virtual reality–”when a study on bias and the use of force came out in 2002.

Still, Goff’s reports and the department’s follow-through are in the early stages, and community activists are not convinced that Goff’s work alone will solve all the department’s problems.

Art Way, racial profiling and police discrimination coordinator at the Colorado Progressive Coalition, wants to see more concrete changes to police policy, namely the elimination of the “Broken Windows” policing strategy that targets minor code infractions in areas of high crime rates. The policy, Way said, “sanctions racial profiling” since the nature of the program leads to the disproportionate targeting of black and Latino communities. The program only reinforces the longstanding American stereotype that young men of color are the face of crime, he said.

Detective Rufino Trujillo and Sgt. Leonard Mares, Colorado chapter president and vice president for the National Latino Peace Officers Association, are alarmed by the effects a homogenous police force has on policing. Such concern is part of the reason the association filed a lawsuit against the department in 2006, seeking fair treatment in hiring, promotions and disciplinary issues. The suit is being examined in federal courts as a possible class action case.

The 2000 Census shows that 31.7 percent of Denver’s population were Latino. Nine years later, the association estimates that the number has increased up to 50 percent. The department’s 2007 showed 19.9 percent of the police force is “Hispanic,” including just 17.1 percent of officers ranked sergeant or higher.

In 2006, the department created an equal employment opportunity coordinator position, and Mares says the department has since drafted its first equal employment policy, which will be implemented on Oct. 1. Mares said the policy is a good start, but he wants more. “You can throw out this terminology about discrimination, harassment–” problem is, you have to have training to go with it,” he said. “They say that they’re working on that; I haven’t seen anything yet.”

To that, Goff might say: Be patient. Revamping the department’s training system is one of his stated goals, as he and the department are in the process of shifting the program from a “paramilitary boot camp” style to a more educational one. Goff is still in the process of developing a suggested diversity training program.

Goff will soon expand his program nationwide, thanks in part to a February summit run by the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, which he leads. The Chicago Police Department will be in attendance, and departments from Toronto and Los Angeles County are already working with the consortium.

“He’s got their ear,” Mares says of Goff’s relationship with the department. “I believe that he’s bringing things forward from a person that’s on the outside that they’re going to listen to a little bit. The bottom line is, the department knows they’ve got some problems.”

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