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We All Have Work to Do: A Conversation With Tracie Keesee

Vital City

September 27, 2023

The former top NYPD official talks about fixing culture, training and what police are for.

The former top NYPD official talks about fixing culture, training and what police are for.

Vital City · Five Minutes with Tracie Keesee

Tracie Keesee is the nation’s leading thinker and doer around the idea of “coproducing safety,” the principle that residents must be at the center of defining what safety means and how it is realized. Fundamentally, the idea requires a shift in power, with the police ceding authority to neighborhoods that is a break from past practice and that recognizes a history of harm to communities of color.

Her ideas are deeply rooted in her experience both as a police professional and as the founder and leader of the Center for Policing Equity, an organization dedicated to reducing racial disparities and promoting change in American police departments. Her career is a blaze of firsts: among other things, the first female police captain in Denver and the first deputy commissioner for equity and inclusion in the NYPD.

Keesee sat down with Vital City this summer to reflect on her experience and the path forward for neighborhoods and policing.

Credit: Arthur Mount

Vital City: You have been one of the major players in promoting the idea of “coproducing” safety, the idea that being safe is not just the province of the police but something that must happen with residents playing a major role. When it comes to solving gun crimes, how do you see the idea of coproduction of safety playing out?

Tracie Keesee: The thing that really hampers police and violence investigations is the legitimacy of their position in the community. Of course, within that legitimacy comes trust. Building that trust centers on what it means to be safe, and you have to ask the question: Who are you trying to make safe?

I think the pandemic just put the spotlight back on everything that Black and brown folks have been talking about for decades. I’ll be 60 this year; we can go back to the Civil Rights Movement or even earlier.

The very first question I got during the pandemic was, “Don’t you have public health people? Why aren’t you sending people out from public health who know how to answer the questions or to distribute masks?”

In the academy, when I was there, we didn’t talk about how to enforce these kinds of things — for instance, telling someone else to put on a mask, when you yourself either weren’t wearing one or you didn’t even know if you were safe. Definitions of safety still fell along the lines of race and along the lines of class, so nothing changed.

Some people said, “Well, we were all going through it.” But no, we weren’t. We were all going through it very differently. And we knew that was going to be the case. The reason it was so hard to convince millions of Black people to take a vaccination was because we have a history of being experimented on.

VC: Then George Floyd was murdered, further shining a light on disparate treatment.

TK: Yes. A lot of folks in the PD say, “We have great relationships with our community,” but what kind of relationships are we talking about? The relationships they were referring to were very transactional. They were not personal. They were an agreement — the social contract of you do this, I will do this. You don’t do this, this is what happens.

And in the midst of the pandemic and the reaction to the Floyd murder, it unraveled. It absolutely unraveled.

When we are asking people to come forward and to be witnesses — I’m saying this from a policing perspective — it’s a loaded question. You don’t live here. You leave. I’m here.

VC: Can you explain further the relevance of those frayed relationships to solving serious crimes?

TK: If you don’t have some semblance of trust, then you don’t have anyone coming forward, you don’t have anybody reporting. That’s one.

But tied to that is the ask. When we are asking people to come forward and to be witnesses — I’m saying this from a policing perspective — it’s a loaded question.

You don’t live here. You leave. I’m here.

So your ability to keep me safe: Can you do that? And if there isn’t a feeling that you can even do that on a regular day, what makes you think you’re going to be able to do that when I have to now turn around and sit in a court of law across from someone who I grew up with in the neighborhood who chose a different path than I did?

Police don’t realize or appreciate how difficult it is for people to turn around and look at that person, and say, “Yeah, he or she’s the one who did it,” because of the very legitimate fear that this will somehow blow back on me and my family.

If you as a police officer or police official don’t understand that, if you don’t empathize, then the relationships will always be transactional. But when you center people who have lived experiences like that, the responses are much more robust, they’re much more holistic.

What police are asking someone to do when they ask for witness participation has not only a ripple effect through that immediate family; it ripples through distant cousins and across generations. Once that is done, that story is carried, that experience is carried.

VC: One of the efforts by police to build relationships has been to double down on neighborhood policing. How do you assess whether that has been a productive route?

TK: Putting in foot patrols, neighborhood police officers, those are great for relationship-building. But we’ve known for decades it’s sustainability and we know what happens when you pull them out of those neighborhoods. That is not a relationship because the relationship is attached to one body, one group of people, but it does not permeate an entire organization. If you have to have a special unit to treat Black folks right, then there’s a problem — because everybody in that organization should be behaving the same way you want that neighborhood police officer to behave. But for some reason, and we know this as a policing culture, for some reason, we’re not willing to do that.

It’s like you get 20 people in Brownsville to be nice to the community. Selected, trained to be nice, empathetic. And then you want to come out and think that folks are going to, after six months or a year of bringing in five people, when something happens, they’re going to call you? Well, some will, but that was the way they were wired.

How do you fix that part? In order to fix that part, everybody has got work to do.

VC: You were head of training at the NYPD for two years. To some Americans, the question “What are police for?” has an obvious answer: to catch criminals, to keep law-abiding people safe. Do you think that’s the answer in predominantly Black and brown communities?

TK: There are two things that probably have been the most profound questions that have come out of the pandemic.

One, what is the purpose of the police? What is it they should be doing? And whether you want to call this defund, or reappropriate, do we have enough preventative mechanisms in place to keep bad things from happening downstream?

And two, if we did, who’s responsible? Because you have to remember, the other thing that happens in policing is that cops often get charged with handling things because they are open 365 days, they’re always open. Like a convenience store, a bodega, they’re always open.

And because they’re always open and then you have a mass group of people who you can deploy any way you want, they become the political arm of whoever’s in office.

Then you want to come out and think that folks are going to, after six months or a year of bringing in five people, when something happens, they’re going to call you? Well, some will, but that was the way they were wired.

What you will hear a lot of folks say is, we have to deploy police because this is how to keep communities safe. However, we always ask the question, which community are you referring to? Are you keeping them safe from someone, something, or are you trying to provide safety for everyone? I think what is interesting about this conversation about coproducing public safety is that the community does have a role. The community has always had a role.

Everybody wants to be safe. Everybody wants to be able to walk from home to the bodega and back again and not be a victim. Ride the train, not be a victim. Sit in a park, not be a victim. Everybody wants the same thing, but we have to then decide: What are the trade-offs?

VC: How should this more complicated answer to the question of what police are for inform the way we train cops?

TK: Can you teach a police officer to understand and sufficiently appreciate the perspective of whole communities? I mean you can certainly teach about culture, about lived experiences. You can do that by bringing the community into the training setting so officers can understand it.

It also helps when you have recruits who have grown up in those neighborhoods and who have been and are survivors of violence. Some of them probably in their very, very young lives may have been low-level perpetrators in some way.

We should also understand the limitations of training. I can have the best and the brightest and the most evidence-based training in the world, which New York often does and hopefully still does. When I take you as a new recruit out of that controlled academy environment — because the academy is a controlled environment — and I put you into the neighborhoods, everything is different.

If you’re around other officers who have the wrong idea of how to treat someone, it’s only going to be a matter of time before you take your training and take what you know to be right and true, and you learn how to push it aside, you learn how to rationalize why you’re doing this as opposed to what you were taught and what you feel, because now you have to survive in a culture that may not want that to happen.

And so the most difficult thing in law enforcement throughout this country is: How do you do that? How do you select the right person? How do you have the right training? How do you have that person in the right environment? There isn’t any work environment that’s 100% perfect, we just happen to be talking about police.

VC: In New York City, for the first time, there’s a Black mayor, Black leadership in the City Council, Black and Latino leadership at the Police Department, a department that itself is majority now, I think, Black and brown. How does that change things, if at all?

TK: There’s a really old, outdated narrative that somehow, if you put Black folks to work on Black problems, they’re going to get solved. We saw this with Barack Obama when he was president; some people said, oh look, racism is gone. All of us Black folks were like, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

We always look for an escape hatch when it comes to Black folks. The mayor and police commissioner and others in positions of power may all be Black and brown, but they’re also operating within a system they didn’t create, and those systems have constraints, and anybody who’s ever worked in government knows that government has a culture and also has a power that — if you don’t adapt in some way — will spit you out. So you learn how to negotiate it.

The mayor does not cease to be a Black man. He doesn’t. He shows up every day, he looks in the mirror every day, and, I’m assuming, he says, “This is who I am.”

But everyone in power is also impacted by structural systems that are already set up, and policing is probably one of the best examples of that. When I go in and put that uniform on, that uniform is to symbolize that we all are moving in the same direction. However, even within NYPD officers of color, women will tell you they’re having a different experience.

What we need to do is try to find areas of unity, which is not bad, but you can’t do that and ignore underlying systems that created things in the first place.

When I take you as a new recruit out of that controlled academy environment — because the academy is a controlled environment — and I put you into the neighborhoods, everything is different.

VC: It sounds like you say we need a top-to-bottom cultural review of policing as an institution.

TK: 100%. It is not just the recruit going into Brownsville or Washington Heights, it is the leadership all the way down. Depending on when you come in and when you were hired, you absolutely could be operating on different philosophical beliefs about what law enforcement should be, what it shouldn’t be, how people who are allegedly committing crimes should be treated, not treated.

And so when you have this clash of worldviews, the thing that you have to think about is okay, I might have 500 folks I’m just getting out of the academy, but I’ve still got 23,000 other ones who may be thinking something completely different. And you have to be able to figure out how you manage that. Those are multiple systems.

VC: And training only begins the process for any given cop.

TK: Right. Thereafter, the question becomes more about accountability. If someone has a behavior issue, you need to make sure you don’t have to wait two years to correct that behavior issue, but do it right away. And then, they need to understand why corrective action is being taken.

What’s interesting about this whole relationship is that you have Black and brown communities who have this extremely historical lived experience with law enforcement, and it has been a traumatic history. We just keep passing this trauma down and passing it on. But then you have the law enforcement culture itself that creates and churns out folks in certain ways and doesn’t recognize what it’s doing.

The question for a police department becomes: What part of this do we own? Have we been consistent in accountability? Have the rules been applied the same for everyone?

If you don’t line those things up and begin to manage all of them together, then of course you’re going to have people doing all kinds of things. That’s why you have Internal Affairs. That’s why you have oversight.

VC: This is such a large project, repairing or resetting these relationships — both inside police departments and between cops and communities. Concretely, how do we get from here to there without feeling profoundly daunted?

TK: We really have not pushed for a collective conversation throughout the country about not just what is our role here but the impact of history and the impact that continues.

And I say this with the caution I always give, which is that neither Black folks nor police are a monolith.

I think there’s a collective exhaustion that something else needs to happen here. In that collective exhaustion, you start to hear: All right, where are we and what are we going to do? Not that we don’t need police for certain things, but we can’t keep relying on someone else to give us what we need. But we also have examples of when we try to do those kinds of things, it is not accepted or it’s pushed back against, or it’s feared.

It takes a power shift. It takes centering community, it takes you stepping back, letting the community create those things that they need and funding them and then allowing those things. But if you’re unwilling to share power or shift power a little bit, then we’re really just on this merry-go-round that continues, and it’s just passed on from generation to generation.

That’s what’s at the core of legitimacy. “Trust” gets thrown around like Skittles. If one more person says we’re going to build trust, everybody just shakes their head and walks on.

We have to get past some folks’ reluctance to engage. Right now, we’re in a time where if you absolutely vehemently disagree or you have a very opposed position, as the grandkids and the young folks say, people try to cancel you, and define that however you want. We have to have an open and fluid conversation if we’re ever going to move forward.

Something is wrong. Something is not connecting and catching and allowing us to move forward. Or are we to think this is the way it’s supposed to be? The system says this is the way it’s supposed to be.

The biggest question for all of us together is this: Why don’t we have the appetite to do what needs to be done? That’s the question that needs to be asked of everybody. Everybody.

What is your role? What should be your role? If you don’t want to do your role, why don’t you want to do it? That is a question I find that has always been interesting. Sitting in political conversations like this and being asked to come in and work with other folks, that’s the question I always ask.

We’ve diagnosed the problem and analyzed it 50 million different ways. God bless all the academics. The question is: Why don’t we choose to do the right thing to fix it?