Published: April 16, 2021 By

Image caption: CUPD Chief Doreen Jokerst is joined by a group of women CUPD police officers on the terrace of the Center for Academic Success and Engagement (CASE) building. Pictured left to right are Officer Jennifer Aycock; Sergeant Mary Vekasy; Officer Dorie Schram; Chief Jokerst; Commander Paula Balafas; Officer Cassandra Yuma; Officer Sara Fraser; and Officer Michelle Leo (CU photo by Glenn Asakawa)

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series about the CU Police Department’s efforts to increase transparency, accountability and trust with the campus community.

About a year into her tenure as chief of the University of Colorado Police Department, Doreen Jokerst received a report about a woman shouting racist comments at two CU Boulder students who were studying in the campus’s Engineering Center.

The woman, unaffiliated with the university, was later arrested on a misdemeanor harassment charge and excluded from the campus––but her actions rattled the campus, and the impacts of that day lingered for weeks. The incident became a lightning rod for students of color and others who had experienced discriminatory behavior on campus and elsewhere.

Members of the Black Student Alliance and other student leaders, citing the incident as the latest of many others they had experienced, met with university administrators and called on them to take immediate action to implement anti-racist policies and strategies and to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus community.

After leaving behind a 20-year law enforcement career in Parker, Colorado, in 2018 to serve the state’s leading public research university, Jokerst decided then and there that she would meet with student leaders, faculty and staff of her own accord to hear their concerns and understand their viewpoints about campus policing and policing in the city of Boulder and beyond. Following the killings of George Floyd and other people of color while in police custody, the campus community’s calls for change were further amplified.

As a relatively new police chief, Jokerst knew she would have to win not only the trust of her officers, staff and university leaders, but also the trust of students, faculty and staff.

“It was not until I came to CU Boulder that I really realized what working in an inclusive environment is all about,” Jokerst says of working with members of the campus community, university stakeholders and regional partners. “It’s truly about building a culture so that people feel secure and psychologically safe.”

Building an inclusive and community-centered police department

Jokerst’s work to build a more inclusive and community-centered campus police department is part of a national trend. Increasingly, public safety agencies in cities and on college campuses are reassessing how to serve the communities they are sworn to serve and protect through greater transparency, accountability and trust.

Efforts by CUPD to connect more with the campus and Boulder communities have become all the more critical following a March 6 street-party-turned-riot on University Hill and a devastating March 22 mass shooting at a Boulder supermarket that left 10 Boulder residents dead. CUPD provided backup to the Boulder Police Department during both public safety crises.

From Chief Jokerst

I want to share some of the steps we are taking to build a more inclusive police department that serves and protects our campus and Boulder community. We will be sharing updates in a series of stories that CU Boulder Today will begin publishing today. 

Read the Full Message

To tap into lessons learned nationally and to crowdsource best policing practices, Jokerst has also partnered with external experts who include a former police officer, a police psychologist and a higher education leader. One of her go-to partners in Colorado is Paul Taylor, an assistant professor in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs who served as an external adviser to CU Boulder’s Community Safety Task Force, which recently issued final recommendations on how CUPD can strengthen its engagement with students, faculty and staff.

The convening of the task force and its recommendations form a key response to the campus’s ongoing work to fulfill the chancellor’s immediate anti-racism actions.

Professor Taylor says one way for university police departments to build greater trust is by serving as conduits to campus communities. Solutions developed on college campuses should be relevant and authentic to the higher education environment “while reflecting the concerns of society writ large,” says Taylor, a CU Boulder graduate and former CUPD officer.

“The key is relationships,” he says. “We have to establish and maintain those relationships. When there is something controversial, it’s knowing who you can get answers from.”

Tracie Keesee, a retired veteran Denver police officer and co-founder and senior vice president of justice initiatives for the Los Angeles-based Center for Policing Equity, is another one of Jokerst’s community partners. Keesee says CUPD is not alone in its efforts to become a more inclusive, accountable and transparent police department.

“Urban, rural, campus, transit––everyone is going through this period of reexamination right now,” says Keesee, who advocates for community-based strategies to end bias in public safety and provides advice to police departments and other agencies across the United States.

Keesee says the kind of initiatives Jokerst is leading are important because the campus police chief is proactively interacting with her core community, with students, faculty and staff.

“She is listening to her community, which is very difficult for leaders to do sometimes,” she says. “It’s not just listening. It’s hearing what’s being asked and understanding what’s behind the ask––that’s what’s difficult, especially when you are not a person of color.”

Keesee also contends that CUPD and other university police departments have a few advantages over their counterparts in other settings, including built-in academic partners and students, faculty and staff who are eager to learn and help the campus figure out what’s working and what is not. Listening to the viewpoints of communities of color and other underrepresented groups is especially critical right now, she says.

“When you hear broader conversations about divest, reinvest, abolish––we’re talking about historical practices that have not treated specific communities in the way that it has treated others,” Keesee notes. “It hasn’t been equitable (across communities).”

Part of a campus commitment

Recognizing the concerns of students and others related to police reform, Chancellor Philip DiStefano last June issued eight immediate actions to enable change, including two focusing solely on CUPD. One calls for aligning CUPD policies and procedures with “best community and campus practices,” and the other for continuing the department’s collaborative work with student government and campus organizations serving students of color.

Senior Isaiah Chavous, a CU Student Government student body president who studies political science and business, believes community engagement is a key aspect of building trust between campus police departments and students, faculty and staff.

Chavous, a member of the coalition that has met regularly with Jokerst, notes that one of the ideas that arose from discussions with the chief was a community board whose members could engage in open dialogues and participate in collaborative work with CUPD leadership to foster trust and promote police transparency and accountability.

“Listening to student leaders, to student voices, even staff and faculty voices––which have been a key part of this––is the future of our department here at CU,” Chavous says. “CUPD represents students, faculty and staff, and if they are not listened to, then CUPD is not representing the community.”

CUPD Chief Doreen Jokerst is pictured taking part in a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Boulder last summer.

CUPD Chief Doreen Jokerst (second from the right) is pictured taking part in a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Boulder last summer. Also pictured left to right are Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold; Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty; student organizer Kennedy Blackwell; Chief Jokerst; and student Jemil Kassahun. (courtesy photo)

Last year, student organizers invited Jokerst to walk alongside them during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march through Boulder, and she accepted their invitation and invited Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold and Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty to join them.

Of her collaborations and conversations with student leaders and other members of the campus community, Jokerst says she expects to achieve “actionable, positive changes.”

Developing trust with campus police and staff

When she arrived on campus in 2018, Jokerst set out to earn the trust of 43 commissioned officers and 60 staff members. Many of the students she is collaborating with come from historically underserved communities in Colorado and beyond, where law enforcement agencies are not inherently trusted.

“I try to relate to everyone,” Jokerst says, describing her approach to working with people of all backgrounds. “You never know what someone may be going through or experiencing. More respectful and empathetic communication can go a long way.”

The chief says she wants the university community to view her department as a trusted partner that works to ensure the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff in collaboration with the Office of Victim’s Assistance (OVA), Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) and the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) among other campus partners. 

“I want to show the campus another side of our work, to show that we can help, that we are a resource, and that we are available to people,” she says.

In October 2019, CUPD implemented a telehealth service in collaboration with CAPS that enables officers to connect students with counselors in real time during after-hours mental health crises. Based on input from student leaders, CUPD will also embed a mental health clinician this year thanks to the university’s allocation of an additional $1.8 million to support students’ mental health and wellness needs.

Under Jokerst’s watch, CUPD has introduced body-worn cameras and installed cameras in each of its patrol vehicles for greater transparency. When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act last June, CUPD was already in compliance with its key provisions and complied with it further by immediately banning chokeholds.

Leading the way on community-based policing

Established in 1949, CUPD is part of the campus’s Office of Integrity, Safety and Compliance, and it provides a wide array of public safety services to the campus. Under the federal Clery Act,  it is required to respond to and report criminal activity on campus in a timely manner to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. Reportable criminal activities include active harmers, sexual assaults, robberies and vandalism.

University policies and federal laws also require CUPD to investigate reports of underage drinking, drug abuse, stalking, allegations of discrimination and harassment with intent to cause physical harm and other incidents that compromise personal and campus safety.

Failure to prohibit the possession, use or distribution of illicit drugs on campus could lead to the loss of critical research funding under the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989.

CUPD also partners with the Boulder Police Department and other local and state law enforcement agencies to safeguard the campus during natural and human-caused disasters, football games, concerts, commencement and other events, and during off-campus situations impacting the well-being of students, faculty and staff.

Jokerst’s other priorities include hiring more diverse officers. A recruitment plan calls for hiring “a workforce that better reflects the diversity of the campus and the Boulder community when it comes to gender, race and other areas.” Currently, 17% of CUPD officers are people of color––a number Jokerst says she is committed to improving. With a female chief, a female commander and eight women officers––about 19% of its corps––CUPD stands above the national average of 12% for hiring female officers.

CUPD is also working toward an accreditation from the International Accreditation for Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA).

“College and college town police departments can be leaders of and examples to agencies across the United States for a new kind of community-based policing,” Jokerst says. “I want our police department to be central to community problem-solving and to advocate for safety, justice and equity in our community.”

5 questions for Tracie Keesee

Tracie Keesee is co-founder and senior vice president of justice initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, a Los Angeles-based research center that works to end bias in policing through “data science for justice.” She served as a Denver Police Department officer for more than 25 years and later as a deputy commissioner in New York City, where she implemented an inclusive framework for recruiting, hiring and retaining NYPD officers. 

Keesee holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Metropolitan State University of Denver, a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Colorado Denver and a doctoral degree in intercultural communications from the University of Denver.

She is a graduate of the 203rd session of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, an op-ed writer, and a public speaker on constructive police reform whose 2018 Ted Talk, “How Police and the Public Can Create Safer Neighborhoods,” has been viewed more than 1.4 million times. The following Q&A is based on a recent interview with Keesee. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

You say that police chiefs are trying to figure out how to provide more equitable public safety. What does that look like on college campuses?

I have to caution chiefs, as I did with Chief Jokerst: You can’t be all things to all people. You need to know your role. Once you define that role, then you can begin to figure out the spaces where you should be. But the process of defining it, understanding what the role of public safety is on a campus, is a lot of the work Chief Jokerst is engaged in now. She’s ahead of the game in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to her engagement with students, faculty and staff. They are her community, and her level of engagement and the type of engagement she is leading are very important. She is listening to her community, which is very difficult for leaders to do sometimes. It’s not just listening. It’s hearing what’s being asked and understanding what’s behind the ask. That’s what’s difficult, especially when you are not a person of color.

Chief Jokerst is doing a lot of her own research. She is trying to understand, learn, listen and read. These are all critical pieces to try to begin to understand what’s being asked of you. Another aspect of these efforts, though, is not relying on the chief to do this work alone. All chiefs working in a system require a level of support, understanding and conversation, and other campus leaders also need to own what is happening here. CUPD is part of a system, and you don’t allow one part of the system to be fixed and think the rest of it is going to fall into place. This work requires broader thinking about public and campus safety, and that means that everybody has got to be involved, engaged and understand how they interact and intersect.

How can CUPD engage with the campus to implement impactful cultural changes?

What I always tell folks to do is to manage your expectations because things didn’t get this way overnight, and they are not going to get fixed overnight. As I told many of the chiefs we work with this summer: You’ve got collective grieving going on here, and grieving looks different in different places and among different people in different spaces. Most of us know that grief has many cycles, and people are not grieving the same way or even together. It is happening in different ways. Some people might express their grief through anger, and we need to clearly recognize that. Others may still be in denial about what has happened recently. We can’t think that everyone is grieving at the same pace. They are not. They are all over the place, and in order to pick up on that, you really need to understand what trauma looks like.

How can CUPD and other campus police departments earn the trust of students, faculty and staff in the current climate?

What we are talking about is the ability to express a need for something different than what’s happening right now. Students are learning about systems and about just how recalcitrant systems can be, especially if they are operating as designed. They are learning how much and what it will take to create whatever that new public safety is, what it looks like, and what it feels like. A lot of young folks can tell you what it should look like and feel like.

Oftentimes as adults, though, we don’t want to hear that. We have to think back when we were their age and were pushing up against the same thing. It’s a rite of passage for young people, and we have our own issues around young folks pushing back against systems, speaking up about what they want to have in the world, and how they want the world to operate.

As a campus police chief, Chief Jokerst is in a role that is so much richer than chiefs in other spaces. She has academic partners who are built in and a climate in which people are eager to learn and to help figure out what’s working and what is not––and to have that in your backyard is  very valuable.

There is a lot going on right now, including a global pandemic. Is now a good time to reexamine public safety in cities, in rural communities and on university campuses?

All of this is interrelated, and I understand clearly why it feels overwhelming. But this is the problem: These issues have always intersected. They’ve always been about equity. It’s always been about disparities. It’s always been about race and gender. And you can’t separate them. You’ve got to deal with them at the same time.

I think what people are really reacting to is the overwhelming nature of it. So it’s not, “Let’s talk about that in 2023 when we come up with a vaccine, and then we can deal with that after we deal with homelessness and then education.” It is that sort of convergence of everything all at once, and that’s why everybody’s exhausted.

There’s never a good time to do this work. And you might hear, too, not just among activists, but even just generationally, that there never seems to be a good time, and nobody has patience anymore. It’s a pile-on, but it’s one more thing that has never been fully addressed. That’s why it’s showing up the way it’s showing up with disparities in health care, employment and education. It’s all of that and more. It’s almost an instance when you think about all of the things sort of converging on one another because they are all interrelated, and so you have to take care of all of it, in a sense, the best you can. You can’t do everything, because one thing impacts something else, which is why there’s not this one-at-a-time effort. Somebody said to me, “It’s like whack-a-mole.” You hit one, and the other one pops back up.

Why do some Americans seem to be having lightbulb moments about race relations and public safety in the United States right now? What was it about the events of 2020 and early 2021 that seem to be bringing about greater clarity and awareness?

When the homicide of George Floyd happened, I kept asking myself, “Why is this situation any different than Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland who died before that?” I mean, it took me weeks, and I kept posing the question in a scientific way. Why is this so different? Because for folks of color, this is not new, and multiple people have said multiple things to me about it. “Well, you know, this is the first time somebody’s ever watched somebody lose their life in the moment on camera, and people reacted some kind of way to that. They could not believe it was happening.” OK. I’ll give you that. And others felt the whole scenario went too far based on what the crime was. “It was out of whack completely. You shouldn’t lose your life over something like that.”

And, so, you have to think to yourself, as people of color, this is our daily, this is how we negotiate. This is how we tell ourselves, “Don’t say that, say it this way.” Or, “Don’t wear that, wear this.” And it is this sort of having to push yourself into these different machinations to watch someone else who has never had to do that all of sudden be disturbed. You can see the disconnect, and I’m like, “OK. I’ve been around for a long time. We’ve all been moving in this space. We’ve literally been inhabiting a planet, but we’ve been living in two different worlds, and you have absolutely done everything you can to keep from seeing that other world because it does not impact you, it has nothing to do with you.”

It’s like, wow, we have been moving in the same space, but just moving, and I have to think about what it takes for someone to compartmentalize, to suppress, to rationalize what’s been happening to this group over here. It’s a lot of energy, but people are still doing it today. What does it take, as you just said, for the lightbulb to go off, like, “Oh, my God?” What does it take? And usually people will say, “It takes something personal, something relatable that snaps people.” And I say, well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much left to give to snap people out. I don’t know what else it’s going to take for you.

This is what we tell police chiefs and legislators: Your patience level for what’s happening right now is going to have to get much, much better and longer, because it makes no sense to ask groups of people who’ve been traumatized to all of a sudden snap out of it, to figure out the answer to this and let’s just get on with it. That approach tells me you are disconnected from the human way of evolution and the way humans react to trauma.

Tracie Keesee

Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity (courtesy photo)