Talking it out

Former Boulder resident works to improve racial bias in policing

Kallie Dorland grew up in Boulder but is now working to bridge the gap between millennials and police at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Kallie Dorland

The past few years have marked a broadening in the conversation about race and policing in the United States. The disproportionate number of young black men and women being shot by police has led to the creation of Black Lives Matter and numerous protests. Those developments have helped to shed light on this glaring example of racial inequity within the justice system.

In 2015 alone, American police officers shot and killed 1,134 people. Despite comprising only 2 percent of the population of the U.S., black males between the ages of 15 and 34 represent 15 percent of those deaths. Adjusting for population, this means that young black males are nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic group in America.

While there is no single, simple solution to this complex problem, one former Boulder resident believes she has found a way to make at least some progress.

Kallie Dorland is currently a student at Drexel University where she is a member of META consulting, a student-created consulting firm currently working with the Justice Department on a program called Peer 2 Peer. The goal of Peer 2 Peer is to create an active dialogue between law enforcement and the communities they serve as a means to deconstruct negativity in the relationship between the two.

“Anytime you are sitting with someone and having a conversation, that helps you create a more complex idea of that person in your mind. And that can help you not rely on stereotypes as much,” says Dorland, who is currently helping to repair the frayed bonds of trust between teenagers and police in West Philadelphia.

Dorland, 20, grew up in Boulder where she recalls personally having positive interactions with police, but she knows that was not the case for everyone in her hometown. While the community that she now works in is demographically more diverse than Boulder — 43 percent of Philadelphians are black compared to 0.9 percent of Boulder residents — she says issues of racial inequity are ubiquitous across the nation.

The consulting firm Hillard Heintze published an extra-departmental analysis of the Boulder Police Department in February 2016. Their research found that in traffic and misdemeanor citations, racial bias was evident. In Boulder, a black person is about twice as likely to be ticketed than would be expected based on community demographics, and Boulder’s black residents are arrested at a rate 4.8 times that of non-black residents.

The Peer 2 Peer initiative was launched in 2015 and currently involves 17 universities, including Drexel, in competition with each other to develop the most effective program to build trust between millennials and law enforcement.

Drexel’s entry in the competition is the Real Education to Inspire the Right Engagement (RETIRE It) campaign, which will work in West Philadelphia to improve interactions between the cops and the community. Dorland believes the current news cycle regarding police shootings of young black people from Ferguson to Chicago to Baltimore to Milwaukee demonstrates the clear need of improving communications and relations between cops and young people. And she believes that one of the best ways to accomplish this is to get young people talking among themselves in a constructive manner by way of social media or other avenues.

“I think the Department of Justice wanted to do this because they wanted millennials talking to other millennials,” she says, “and I think that’s coming off of the incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore.”

Dorland asserts that members of the community she works in have mistrust in the justice system because the interactions they have with law enforcement nearly always occur when they’ve done something wrong or are perceived to have done something wrong. She believes interactions separate from punitive instances build stronger citizen-police relations by contextualizing officers outside of a sense of being in trouble.

The RETIRE It program has been hosting events between retired and active police officers and students of West Catholic Prep in Philadelphia as part of its efforts to build a different type of relationship between police and youth. These events include talks by police officers, team building events and poetry slams. An event on Mar. 4 of this year focused on officer decision-making in situations that involve escalation of force.

“We’re just trying to start a dialogue between law enforcement and millennials to sort of work through the issues that are currently popping up,” Dorland says.

META also conducts surveys and focus groups in West Philadelphia in order to collect data that they’ll present before the Department of Justice in June. Some of this research includes data on optimizing the effectiveness of social media use.

The RETIRE It campaign is designed to examine the current conversation that’s happening in the community, whether in personal discourse or over social media, and facilitate progress as opposed to conflict. Part of Dorland’s motivation to join the campaign was the conversation that she was seeing on social media, which was consistently more argumentative than constructive.

“It’s really about creating that dialogue and getting people together and saying, ‘OK, we admit there might be a problem here; what is that problem and how can we fix it?’” she says. “As opposed to just, you know, people yelling at each other on social media.”

Dorland is not laboring under the impression that the efforts of a student-run consulting group over a single semester will fix the issue, which has deep roots, but she does believe the efforts taking place are meaningful steps to combating racial inequality.

Just as she knows the problem of racial bias in policing can be found in every community across the nation, she also believes that solutions, such as the one she is currently working on, are equally universal in geographic terms. Dorland says the steps that the RETIRE It campaign is taking in Philadelphia could work equally well in Boulder.

“They’re not specifically events that are only possible in Philadelphia, they’re events that can be done on any scale in any city,” she says.

META will present the RETIRE It campaign and its findings before the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in June alongside the 16 other universities participating in the Peer 2 Peer competition.